The Shadow Throne

It hasn’t been more than ten months since I picked up The False Prince and started Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The Ascendance Trilogy. I remember it was the title that got me interested, along with a lovely cover. The story seemed promising and I consumed it fast. I read the sequel soon after, The Runaway King, and liked it equally. It is with a melancholy feeling I finished The Shadow Throne and with that the entire series. Luckily, Nielsen brought her A-game for this one.

King Jaron and his country Carthya stands in front of their biggest battle to date. War rage all around them and Jaron is doing all he can to keep Carthya his and his people safe. But attacked at all sides and with far more enemies then allies, things seem dark. Jaron needs his best wits and a great deal of luck to get out of this one alive. He never wanted to be king and was raised as the younger prince before living the life as an orphan named Sage. Now he has a country on his back and thousands of lives to care for. Will King Vargan and Avenia be too big of a threat, especially now that they have kidnapped the woman he love, or will Jaron do the impossible and survive against all odds?

Important to remember is that this story is made for teenagers, if not children, though there is a fair amount of brutality involved. I would guess the trilogy is aimed at twelve to fifteen year olds, most likely boys. I, as a woman past twenty, enjoyed it nonetheless. My point is that if you read it and find it childish then that’s the explanation. Don’t take this is a reason not to read, because despite it being something more of a childs' tale this is wonderful and I loved it.

It’s a story filled with thrilling moments and a lot of action – the third book is certainly no exception at that. Every page was either filled with battle or plotting to get out of a problematic situation Jaron’s already in or to avoid getting into later on. It’s true that he has a tendency to end up with shackles around his wrists and a sword pointed at his throat, but he also seems to have a never-ending store of creative ways to escape, much to Carthya’s delight, and need. They’re victims of one man’s greed and only have their reckless and downright crazy Ascendance King to turn to. Luckily, Jaron usually has an ace (or a stolen key) up his sleeve.

In the first two books we met an orphan named Sage who is recruited by a nobleman along with two other boys to be turned into the long-lost prince Jaron, believed to have dies years ago. The plan of nobleman, Connor, is to reinstate a false prince and gain control of the country after the king, queen and crown prince are assassinated. After a while we learn that Conner hit the jackpot since Sage is the true prince; Jaron. The second book fixates on his return to the capital and castle where he takes his rightful place, in a role he never wanted. He ends up in a lot of trouble but somehow manages to get away from it only to find out that his kingdom is threatened and at the brink of war. That’s where the third book takes off and it turns out to be a never-ending battle that just moves from one location to the next. In the end Jaron most trust that all will be well, even if the world around him is crumbling to dust.

Jaron is a great character. In the beginning I found him cocky and arrogant, which he certainly is, but as the story go on I learned to appreciate this trait of his. He is sassy and mischievous and he never does what anyone tells him just for the principle of it. He was once known as a boy who brought nothing but trouble to court and was always found doing things he wasn’t supposed to. He lived for years on the streets after his father struck a deal with him. When he returned to the throne, Jaron had picked up even more pranks and tricks that turned out to save him more than once. He is sarcastic and always have a nasty remark to throw in the direction of his enemies. You need to learn to appreciate his sassiness to appreciate the character Jaron, but once you do it so worth it. His sarcasm is in the lines of my own and he made me laugh more than once.

Another important character is his love, Imogen. Jaron has had an eye on her since book one but it never seemed like they would make it work, not least since he was betrothed to the princess of Bymar, Amarinda. Imogen is stubborn and as strong-headed as Jaron which sets up some nice bickering and fights between them. In The Shadow Throne she’s kidnapped by King Vargan and used as a bait to draw out Jaron and she has the chance to show both him and the world that she is loyal to her country and her king. She’s a great addition to the book not least because she can stand up to Jaron – someone who always seems to know the answers to everything, or so he likes to believe.

Other characters worth mentioning are of course the ever-loyal Tobias, one of the other two boys Conner tried to turn into the long-lost prince. He stands beside Jaron through it all along with princess Amarinda who is far from the damsel a princess usually is in fairytales. Mott is Jaron’s servant who’ve also been along for the ride since book one. My love for Mott grew with each passing page since he showed time and time again that he would never let his king down. The captain of Jaron’s guard, Roden, is the third boy which Connor recruited in The False Prince, also a character who stands by Jaron’s side through thick and thin. Fink, an Avenian boy who follows Jaron around like a dog didn’t get extremely much page-time but showed his courage time and time again. What all these characters have in common is that they are loyal, fearless and brave. They don’t hesitate to put their lives at stake if it’s the right thing to do and I liked them very much.

There’s an arsenal of villains in this one, the biggest one of all being King Vargan. He is ruthless and cares for nothing but his own motives, which is to become the emperor of both Avenia and Carthya. He uses everyone and everything in his path to get what he wants and is a typical greedy character gaping for more, not realizing that the fall from the top is the highest one of all. He was evil but nice in the role of the villain, though I would’ve liked seeing his horrendous actions a little more closely at times. Often it was not what he did but what he said he had done or would do that reached the reader. To see something instead of hearing of it would’ve deepened the horribleness that was Vargan.

The writing was good, though like I mentioned earlier, clearly aimed for younger readers. But it’s a good story with a lot of plot twists, some which I didn’t even figure out myself and I take pride in that I usually knows what’s going to happen in a story. Jaron’s tricks and pranks are fun and I loved how he always seemed to have a way out of even the trickiest situation. He’s slippery as an eel and singlehandedly carried this story into my heart.

The ending was nice in a way that endings to most series are. And like with the end of most series I wished it would’ve been longer. The last chapter was only three pages and it didn’t feel nearly long enough to sum everything up. I would’ve liked more, much more, but then again, I’m very invested in both the story and its characters. It was nice, however, not to learn every little detail of the fate of every single character and even nicer that you didn’t get to see everything fall into place for everyone. Nielsen left some space for the reader to conjure up the future for those who survived the war and I liked that. I’m sad and melancholy to see this story come to an end but I take comfort in knowing that they’re waiting for me on my bookshelf whenever I choose to return to Carthya again. 

Of Triton

Curious after reading Anna Banks’ Of Poseidon a few weeks ago I got a copy of the sequel Of Triton not really knowing what to expect but interested in the story and what would happen after the big cliffhanger in the first novel. I didn’t have the highest expectations but was still very, very much disappointed.

The first installment of this mermaid trilogy left us wondering, is Galen right and Emma’s mom, Natalie, is really the previously thought dead Poseidon princess Nalia? Turns out that yes, yes she is. After believing she killed her soon-to-be mate, and heir to the Triton throne, Grom, Nalia left the ocean to live out the rest of her life on land. She kept it secret from Emma, who now learns that her mother is a royal mermaid (Syrena). Nalia, afraid Galen will bring her back to the Syrena society for trial of the death of Grom, takes Emma on a road trip in a vain attempt to get Galen off her back. But he persistently follows them and after finally catching them learns the truth about why she had run away. He, along with a very much alive Grom, convinces her to come back and claim her place in the Syrena society again. Emma is left to wonder what her half-breed status will do for her – can she be with Galen or is she destined to stay on land for the rest of her life since Syrena law clearly states that every half-breed is to be executed? All the while Emma battles this on land, Galen, Nalia and Grom is back in the ocean but Nalia’s return isn’t welcomed with open arms. Uncertain days lie ahead of all the royals.

I thought the first novel was good, if not great. I think I said it was something to read when you don’t really care what you read, just something light to flip through. My initial thought was that I liked it, but the more I thought of it and the more comments I read about it, the more I questioned the book. I was a little uncertain if I would continue the series but my curiosity got the better of me, as it often does. After expecting Of Triton to be much the same as its predecessor I’ve got to say I was both surprised and slightly shocked at the downturn of the story. Banks writing wasn’t the best in Of Poseidon but it got notably worse here. The story itself took a turn for the worst. Where I expected a thrilling second novel I got a boring trial that went on and on forever, a whining protagonist and a completely meaningless death.

Emma learns that her mom is a princess, and thus Emma is as well. She also learns that her parent’s perfect marriage was loveless and that her dad knew who her mom was all along. She struggles to find footing in a world where her mother and father has lied to her, where she is just a one-time mistake and where her mom is in love with a fishman ruling a under-the-water society which her mom is supposed to join him for. It’s a lot to take in for Emma and she has every right to be confused and upset, but at times I felt like she focused on the wrong things. She also had a hard time telling her mom what she thought, which isn’t always the easiest but would’ve made life better for both of them if she’d at least try a little harder. It seemed Banks wanted the reader to view Emma as strong, brave and independent, but all I could see was a scared, whining eighteen year old who had one big moment which was cut of way too soon.

On the other hand, Galen is very strong and stubborn and he’s always fighting for what he wants and believes in. My problem with him is more a feeling than anything else. He just has some character trait that bothers me. Maybe it’s that he tries to shield Emma all the time and not really listen to what she wants. Sometimes I feel that he looks at her and sees a delicate little flower who needs his protection, which contradicts with the view Banks gives the readers of Emma as brave and strong. Or maybe I just haven’t quite gotten over how Galen chased after Emma when she was on a date in the first book and threatened to punch the guy she was with if Emma didn’t talk to Galen. He just seems odd, despite being so nice and caring.

Maybe my biggest problem doesn’t lie with him but with all of the Syrena. They’re described as a species with a very hot temperament. Emma, being a half-breed, is the same in that regard. This leads to a lot of fights. A lot, a lot. Fistfights and wrestling matches and people being thrown through glass windows… I didn’t like the violence in the novel. I don’t have a problem with violence per say, that comes with most books and it is part of the real world, so that’s not weird. What I disliked was how the Syrena seemed to believe that fighting would solve problems. Many times arguments lead to fights. When they’re angry they don’t discuss it, they punch the other guy. Some are very good to manipulate the start of a fight. What kind of message is that to send out? If someone doesn’t agree with you, punch them in the face? If someone says something provocative to you, throw them out the window? No, Anna Banks, I did not care for that.

The rest of the characters are mediocre, at that. Emma’s mom is crazy and most certainly not in a good way. She chloroformed her own daughter and kidnapped her, then later told her she was big enough to live by herself on land while she went down in the ocean to be with Grom and finally threatened to ground Emma for an incident were Emma saved the life of a young Syrena. In the first book she was overly controlling and little changed here (did I forget to mention that she almost killed Galen with a kitchen knife?). Grom doesn’t really do anything except swim around and say a few words here and there. Toraf is still fun and Rayna is still exhaustive to read but I can’t find any love for either of them after the first novel were Rayna said she never wanted to mate (marry) at all only to find out that Toraf went behind her back, talked to Grom and got them mated without anyone asking her (!) and then she changed her mind and turned sweet and lovely towards Toraf. The second book was the two of them fighting and being ‘cute’, which wasn’t cute at all.

The villain of this book was a Syrena called Jagen (a name I spent ten minutes trying to remember but I eventually had to look up. That’s hardly good advertisement for the book) who is in the middle of trying to change the way the Syrena society is ruled. He is, surprisingly diplomatic, attacking the royals and feeds the people lies to benefit his cost. Hardly something new, but it works. Especially with the very trusting Syrena. This is not a villain that I liked, for many reasons. As all the rest of the characters, he felt bleak and not really finished, like they’re all still in a developing process.

I read a while back that if you thought the main character was immature, then you were too old for the book. Maybe that’s right. In this case, though, I wonder how someone who’s eighteen can be so childish as Emma is. Then again, the entire book is childish. Nalia left the ocean because she thought she accidently had made a cave crash down and thus killed Grom. She blamed herself for this and lived on land for sixty-or-something years (the Syrena age more slowly than humans) instead of taking responsibility like a princess should. When Grom shows up and she realizes that he is alive she does a 180 and acts like a lovesick teenager, very much ready to go back to the ocean to take up her place as princess. There’s also no trust to be found anywhere. Nalia doesn’t trust Emma not to call Galen during their little road trip, Emma doesn’t trust Galen’s love for her and Galen, in turn, does not trust his lifelong friendship with Toraf. I might be too old for this story, but I do feel that these characters, all eighteen and older, acts remarkably like children.

The end was, perhaps, the weirdest thing. It was a short story, not even 250 pages, but it still manages to cover quite a lot of twists and turns, none of which was the least bit exciting. The last thrilling thing that happened involved the death of a major character which I felt was completely useless and only served to make the reader feel sorry for the characters. I felt the story would’ve benefitted more from letting the character live. I don’t see why so many authors love to kill of characters for no other reason than killing. Useless character deaths are among the worst things I know and it became painfully clear why in Of Triton.

As the second novel in a trilogy I was surprised that there was an epilog and even more surprised at how ‘wrapped up’ the story was when it finished. I had to double check to see if there really was a third book about Galen and Emma, at first I thought I was mistaken. But no, there is another one, which is strange since this fixed itself so nicely. Now I’m left to wonder what Banks can stir up from a story which seems to have nothing left to give. Is there really a point in pushing this forward and risk damaging it even further? I don’t know and after finishing Of Triton I was left with the feeling that I didn’t really care, either. Maybe my curiosity makes me read the third one or maybe I’ll stay away from everything Syrena, because this was not good. 

The Winner's Crime

The first thing I thought when I finished The Winner’s Curse was that I needed the sequel. Not just needed as in “I want to see where this is heading” but as in “If I don’t find out what happens next nothing in life matters”. Dramatic, but altogether true. I was extremely curious after loving the first novel a great deal. Imagine how happy I was when I had it in my hand. Imagine how high my expectations was.

After Kestrel brought the Valorian army down on the Herrani uprising, and thus on Arin, a highly secretive deal was struck. Kestrel was to marry the prince and become the future empress in exchange for Herran’s freedom. Arin could govern his people and pay taxes to the emperor, but Herran would belong to the Herrani. For this, Kestrel gave up her very slim chance of ever being with Arin to live a loveless marriage which ultimately would save his life. It's the biggest sacrifice she can make and the most important thing is that he never hears about it. Knowing him he would rather bring war to his own people then live peacefully knowing that it was one of Kestrel’s games that gave him Herran – and took her away.

Kestrel now lives in the royal palace in the capital. The wedding is closing in on her and every night is a party or an elegant dinner filled to the brim with high society ladies and gentlemen – including the representatives from Herran. Kestrel dreads seeing Arin again, but she’s also longing for it. Her days in the palace has been cold and lonely, not least because the prince seems to be as invested in the coming marriage as she is, which is not at all. Having Arin around will be both a dangerous temptation and a relief. The months before the wedding is going to be filled with games, strategies and a lot of tension.

I adore Marie Rutkoski’s novel, from the story itself to the writing. It’s beautiful and easy to read even though the novel can be a little stiff at times. It’s not really an action-packed book, not in the sense of sword fighting and heaps of blood. This game is played in the smallest movements, in a word here and there, in a gesture and sacrifices that has to be made. Maybe some people feels that this is a boring book where nothing happens, but the thing is, a lot happens. You just have to see it. Kestrel can’t fight her battle in a duel but does so with deception to protect not just the people she loves, but as many people as she can. I don’t think there’s anything boring with this novel, but you will need a little patient and to know going in that it’s not a fast-paced action story.

Kestrel has spent her whole childhood playing Bite and Sting and now finds herself on a life-sized board. On one side is Valoria, the emperor and her father. On the other Herran, Arin and the right thing to do. She’s already in over her head but knows that there are big secrets to uncover in the palace and turned into a spy Kestrel searches for the answers. She does her best to act poised but knows that the tiniest mistake will cost her more than just her life.

This is what I think is so great about Kestrel. She sees everything as a game to which she needs a strategy and she makes the best moves possible in any circumstance. She grew up with her father, the general of Valoria’s great army, and with the strong Valorian integrity to fight until you die. The entire country is built on its army, at twenty you have the choice of joining the fight or marry to produce more children, and the emperor wants as much land as he can get. For Kestrel to be surrounded by that and yet see how wrong the fighting is, to see how wrong Herrani slaves are treated, is unbelievable. She’s not brainwashed like many others but can see and think for herself and wants a world where everyone is treated equally. She fights for what she believe is right, even if it’s not what her father taught her when she was a child.

Kestrel is a great, complex character but Arin is another. He fights for his people, finally, after ten years, out of enslavement, but he can’t stop thinking about Kestrel. About her engagement and those moments they spent together just a few weeks before she showed up with an engagement mark on her brow. Was it all another of her games, or did he just imagine it? How much will it cost him to dwell on that when his people needs him? Arin is not unafraid but acts fearlessly. He does what he needs to do to save the Herrani from starving and then from being murdered by the Valorians. He still can’t figure Kestrel out and changes his mind on her time and time again, but sets it aside to focus on what needs his attention. He goes above and beyond (quite literally) to ensure the safety of his people. He is a strong leader and a great character.

Other characters that I like is the general, Kestrel’s father. He is merciless on the battlefield but shows love for Kestrel, if not always straightforward. The prince grew on me too but didn’t get enough page-time for me to properly feel that I knew him. The emperor is coldhearted and I don’t have a problem with that but I still didn’t really like him. He makes horrible decisions yet acts very sweetly which was a great character trait but made me uncomfortable when he was around. Kestrel’s friend, Jess, got less page-time in this novel which saddened me a bit since they were so close, but there’s a perfectly good explanation for that. I just hope they work it all out in the last installment.

All in all this was a great novel. The character development was good, I felt like they all moved forward nicely and both Kestrel and Arin grew a lot during the story. The writing is great and the cover is absolutely gorgeous. I really liked the map that was provided in the first pages; I went back to look at it many times while I read. This felt like a typical “second book”, where you’re transported from the beginning in the first installment to the thrilling end in the last. At times it felt like a transportation between book one and three, but it was important and like I mentioned before, this is a story you need to appreciate in the details. It ended right on the edge with a really great cliffhanger that makes me anxious to get my hands on the final installment, out next year. It can’t come soon enough. I’m very curious (and a bit afraid) of what will come next.