Goodreads: The Runaway King
Series: Ascendance #2
Age Category: Young Adult
Threatened by Avenian pirates and worried about a war with the Avenian king, Jaron is forced by his regents to go on the run. But he has a plan. Rather than hide, he will join the pirates and end the war before it begins. He just has to do it before the regents put someone else on the throne.
While The False Prince strains credulity, book two in the Ascendance trilogy throws all logic entirely out the window. The story is based around the faulty premise that, having received a death threat from the Avenian pirates, the king of Carthya can only save his realm from war by going on the run. Having effectively abandoned his people, King Jaron decides that his best course of action is to join the pirates and take out their leader. Convoluted shenanigans ensue, but most of it feels like it is lacking heart. Jaron does not win here because he is the cleverest; he wins because everyone else is so ridiculous. The Runaway King tries to capture the magic of its predecessor, but Jaron comes across as juvenile and foolish–and one can easily sympathize with the grown-ups who want him off the throne.
The politics in the Ascendance series are almost comically bad, in a way that allows Jennifer A. Nielsen to set up easy bad guys for her heroes to show off against. In book one, readers learned that Avenia is a backwards, barbaric country full of bloodthirsty people eager to get their hands on Carthya’s lands. In this book, readers learn of a complicating factor–the Avenian pirates. These pirates, though based in Avenia and subject to usage by the crown, ostensibly have nothing to do with the rulers of Avenia and do their own, piratey thing. Whatever that is. (Mostly they seem to hang out on their well-established base and, er, threaten outsiders who wander in? Which happens quite often considering their base is so super secret and no one is supposed to leave it alive.) Anyway, somehow both the pirates and the king of Avenia now want Jaron dead for reasons that do not make any sense. So this is bad and Jaron must infiltrate the pirates before they assassinate him. He will do this while pretending that he is actually locked in his rooms for a week or two, throwing a temper tantrum. No better way to gain the loyalty of the people, right?
At any rate, most of the book is spent in the pirate camp, presumably because Nielsen felt that to lock up Jaron in his castle, having him do kingly things, would be boring. This might be all right–what kid doesn’t like a good pirate story?–if the pirates were, well, piratey. But most of them just seem to hang about at camp and none of them are that scary. Furthermore, their leader seems uncommonly dull-witted, having just allowed both Jaron and Imogene into his camp because one promised him gold and the other one…wants to be a kitchen maid? For the pirates? (How does that application even work?) The story might be fun if Jaron were shown to be outwitting the pirates, but they are so slow that there is no joy in watching Jaron escape–not through his wits, but mainly through luck. One really starts to wonder if a kid who thinks walking into a pirate camp with only a half-formed plan is actually suited to lead a nation.
Imogen, meanwhile, gets treated kind of dirty here. There is a sense about the book that it is trying to have her be a strong female character. After all, she made it to Avenia and was hired by the pirates all through her own initiative. Ultimately, however, Imogen ends up being captured and made a pawn in the game between the pirates and Jaron. Nothing really brings a strong female character down like being tied up and having their life threatened if their male lover does not give in to various demands. This seems to be where her character is going in book three, as well, so forgive me for not being overly impressed.
Despite how badly the politics here are, however, this is something naively comforting about how earnestly the book wants readers to believe that Jaron will make a wonderful king. He may be a fool who almost got himself killed for nothing–but, hey, he has courage! This gives the story an old-school kind of feel. It’s the type of story where readers are allowed to believe that personal virtues translate into great leaders and that these great leaders can do anything they want because, you know, they are great. So when Jaron does things like dismiss disloyal regents and replace them all with his (completely unqualified) friends, that’s wonderful! Jaron is now surrounded by people he trusts! No worries about nepotism here or about the optics of filling all the realm’s important roles with people Jaron just personally happens to like.
The Runaway King is probably worth reading for those who enjoyed The False Prince. However, a lot of the magic has gone and the real interest here lies just in wondering what will happen to Jaron. Will he avert war? Will he marry Imogene? How Jaron gets to these endings may be completely wild, but if readers are invested in the questions, they will likely keep reading, anyway.