The Runaway King by Jennifer A. Nielsen

The Runaway King

Information

Goodreads: The Runaway King
Series: Ascendance #2
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2013

Summary

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.

Star Divider

Review

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.

3 Stars

Of Salt and Shore by Annet Schaap, Trans. by Laura Watkinson (ARC Review)

Of Salt and Shore by Annet Schaap

Information

Goodreads: Of Salt and Shore
Series: None
Source: ARC from Edelweiss
Published: October 13, 2020 by Charlesbridge (first published March 2017)

Summary

Every night, Lampie lights the lighthouse lantern for her father, who has trouble with the stairs due to a bad leg. One night, however, she forgets. The ship that foundered on the rocks will have to be paid for. And so Lampie is placed as a servant in the Black House, a mysterious mansion where a monster is said to live. But the monster is not what Lampie was expecting.

Star Divider

Review

Of Salt and Shore is a haunting story that imagines what happens after the events of “The Little Mermaid.” Young Lampie, daughter to the lighthouse keeper, is sent to work at the Admiral’s house after one night when the lighthouse lamp is not lit and a ship founders upon the rocks. She fears the monster rumored to live within, but soon discovers that the monster is not what it seems. As she befriends the Admiral’s son and his servants, Lampie starts to bring life back to the house. But not everyone in town is as welcoming as Lampie, and their fear could ruin everything Lampie has worked to gain. Of Salt and Shore is a beautiful tale of processing loss, finding friendship, and creating hope. Lovers of fairy tales will be spellbound by its magic.

It is rare to find a novel based on a fairy tale that feels as enchanting as the original. Annet Schaap, however, has created a story that possesses that ineffable something— that hint of the supernatural, that haunting taste of bittersweet, that feeling that things will never be fully explained and never should be. The magic is in the not knowing. That magic is in what is. Of Salt and Shore pulls readers into a world where mermaids and pirates coexist side by side with ordinary life–and it makes such a world seem both wholly possible and wholly desirable. Who wouldn’t want to return to Lampie’s world again and again?

Laura Watkinson’s effortless translation helps that world come to life. The prose not only flows smoothly, but also feels completely natural. I can imagine many a reader finishing the book without ever realizing it has been translated at all. This is a testament to Watkinson’s skill, of course, but also a great gift to Schaap’s work, helping it reach a wider readership who can fall in love with her story and its characters.

If you love retold fairy tales, if you love mermaids, if you love worlds where the fantastic and the everyday intertwine–then this book is for you. Of Salt and Shore promises magic–and it delivers.

4 stars

The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall

The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall

Information

Goodreads: The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea
Series: None (so far)
Source: Librry
Published: May 5, 2020

Summary

Aboard the pirate ship Dove, Flora is known as Florian, a man willing to kill if it means his survival. The crew’s mission is to lure unsuspecting highborn passengers onto the ship so they can be sold as slaves on the Red Shore. But then the Lady Evelyn boards the ship and Flora is no longer certaain she can go along with the plan. Together, Flora and Evelyn attempt to escape, but there are greater powers at work than they know.

Star Divider

Review

The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea promises a magical high seas adventure along with a dash of romance. However, though I was expecting great things from this novel, I was ultimately unimpressed. The worldbuilding is under-developed, as is the romance. And the pacing can, at times, be rather slow. I wanted to love The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea, but had to conclude that it is only a passable YA fantasy. It is not terrible, but there are certainly better books out there.

The worldbuilding in The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea leaves much to be desired. The general premise is that there are Imperials who are evil because they are taking over the world. There are various segments of the world, but it is really difficult to determine where all the nations are located and which are under Imperial rule and what that actually means. However, I think readers are supposed to impressed mainly with the idea that colonialism is bad; the rest does not matter much.

The main threat to Imperial rule in this book is, not other other nations, but pirates. Because the Sea loves them. As long as they do not hunt mermaids. Many do, but the Sea has a Pirate Supreme to punish “bad” pirates. However, the Pirate Supreme does not seem particularly good at their job, seeing as how many pirates do not even believe in them. This only becomes important near the end of the book, however, when a convoluted plot twist involving the Pirate Supreme suddenly takes place.

So: the geography is vague and the politics are also vague–and confusing. The magic system is not any better. There are mermaids, of course, who are magical by nature. They exist mainly as a plot point. There are, however, also witches. You might think witches would be important in this book, given its title. But you would be wrong. Witches are a thing, but it is not quite clear what is going on with them. The book drops hints about how Imperial forces have tried to eradicate them, but why is not really explained, and the book does not delve into the issues of oppression it raises here. Mainly, [spoilers] there are witches for convenience of plot, with one character learning magic at astonishing speeds just in time to use their new powers to save the day.

This insertion of witches just for plot advancement is disappointing, but so is the ambiguity of the rules of magic. The book tells readers that this magic system is one where a price is paid for each use of magic. However, it must be said that one of the characters using magic never mentions any losses. So, either they are not occurring or we are just supposed to assume the losses no longer matter or are negligible. This is shoddy writing.

Perhaps the most egregious lack of worldbuilding, however, has to do with the vague mentions of colonialism and enslavement. (Oh, yes. One of our main characters is a slaver, but we are supposed to overlook that and like her anyway.) These are important themes and one would think they would be raised more. However, all we really get is a few characters who hate Imperials because they are Imperials and one character who is, understandably, anti-Imperials because he was present when his home was conquered. So readers get the idea that colonialism is bad because it is initially violent when the conquests happen. But there is not much exploration of what happens after the conquests, even though discussions of colonialism usually encompass issues like the erasure or subjugation of cultures. And slavery? That’s just a minor plot point the book never comes back to.

If you can get past the shoddy worldbuilding, you can attempt to enjoy the romance, but I found this to be just as under-developed. It happens far too quickly and it happens in part by the book trying to make readers believe that the love interests are much nicer than they really are. [Spoilers] The Lady Evelyn is introduced as someone who has a romance with her servant, which raises questions of power and consent. She also does nothing to protect this servant when bad times come. But she’s “nicer” than the other Imperials and I guess didn’t have confidence before, so readers are supposed to overlook all that. Meanwhile, her love interest is an actual pirate who kills people and sells slaves, but we are supposed to like her because, well, she’s not as bad as some of the other pirates.

I think the story is going for some complex morally grey thing, but it just seems confusing because the book ultimately doesn’t come across as morally grey. The book, rather, seems very earnest about how great these two characters are and how, as a result, they deserve to be happy and together. The Sea herself loves them! They are the chosen! They will fulfill the prophecy! How are readers supposed to believe in their moral greyness when all the other characters are basically singing their praises and rooting for them to win?

Of course, not everyone cares about worldbuilding when reading a fantasy. For many, drama and fast-paced action are all that is necessary for them to enjoy a novel. However, even though a book filled with mermaids, pirates, and witches seems really excited, I found that the plot seemed to drag a little. As a result, I put this book aside for awhile and read other books instead.

Despite its many flaws, The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is not the worst YA fantasy I have read. Many will love it and find it filled with adventure and magic. However, I can only give it three stars. The story could have been a lot worse. But it also could have been a lot better.

3 Stars

The Runaway Princess by Johan Troïanowski

The Runaway Princess Comic

Information

Goodreads: The Runaway Princess
Source: Library
Published: January 21, 2020

Summary

Princess Robin can never seem to stay at home. Sometimes she is off on an adventure, and sometimes adventure just happens to find her. Journey with Robin through her kingdom and beyond as she meets mermaids, battles pirates, and crosses wits with witches.

Star Divider

Johan Troïanowski’s The Runaway Princess is a delightful and whimsical adventure. It is not, as the title might suggest, the story of a royal tomboy who leaves home to find independence and meaning in life in things other than gowns. No, it is not that type of story. Rather, it is a story based in the wonder young Princess Robin finds in the world all around her. From exploring distant lands to discovering magic in the world below, Robin takes readers along with her on a journey full of the unexpected–and many unexpected friends.

I love whimsical fantasies, so The Runaway Princess enchanted me directly with its adventurous protagonist, its marvelous landscapes, and its somewhat quirky art style. Robin and her friends carry the story completely, responding to the world around them with openness and warmth. Readers never know quite is going to happen, but they do know that Robin’s heart will always see the heroes through. That type of feel-good story is necessary, sometimes.

Because the story works so well, I do think that the occasional authorial interventions, in which readers are asked to participate in the story and so help Robin and her friends find their way home, are not at all needed. They occur sporadically, but mostly end up feeling random. The sense of immersion is complete without them and so they strike one at times as unnecessarily gimmicky. Perhaps others will like these moments, but I found them a distraction.

On the whole, however, The Runaway Princess is a delightful fantasy adventure perfect for those searching for a quick and happy read. The danger is never too dangerous, the drama never overwhelming. These are the types of adventures that happen and then end just in time for tea. And that is just what I found I wanted.

4 stars

Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller

Information

Goodreads: Daughter of the Pirate King
Series: Daughter of the Pirate King #1
Source: Library
Published: February 28, 2017

Official Summary

Sent on a mission to retrieve an ancient hidden map—the key to a legendary treasure trove—seventeen-year-old pirate captain Alosa deliberately allows herself to be captured by her enemies, giving her the perfect opportunity to search their ship.

More than a match for the ruthless pirate crew, Alosa has only one thing standing between her and the map: her captor, the unexpectedly clever and unfairly attractive first mate, Riden. But not to worry, for Alosa has a few tricks up her sleeve, and no lone pirate can stop the Daughter of the Pirate King.

Review

Daughter of the Pirate King is a rollicking adventures that brings readers across the high seas with headstrong protagonist Alosa—the pirate princess herself. Alosa is clever, strong, and highly trained, the perfect pirate to take on the task of searching an enemy ship for a piece of a treasure map that will make her father wealthier and more renowned than anyone ever before.

I went into Daughter of the Pirate King expecting danger, mayhem, and a bit of banter, and I was not disappointed. I don’t know that I would call Alosa a “lady Jack Sparrow,” as Anna Banks does in a blurb featured on the cover, but she is great fun to watch. She has a plan for everything and a backup plan for her plans, combining smarts with admirable physical skills.

However, there is a much stronger focus on the romance than I was anticipating when I first picked dup the book. That there is a love interest is no surprise (This is YA, and it’s hard to find a novel without a love interest.) However, the romance takes up a very significant percentage of the book, and readers should be prepared for that. I wasn’t 100% invested in the relationship myself, but I think it works, and author Tricia Levenseller makes it clear why these two characters are right for each other.

The plot, otherwise, is fairly tight knit. The stated goal is for Alosa to find a hidden bit of treasure map, and the plot mostly stays in that sphere. That means a lot of the action takes place on just one ship, with Alosa poking about to find its secrets, but she does venture off board just enough to keep readers from feeling claustrophobic.

This book is fun, a bit different from what I normally read, and it hits more of the right “pirate” notes than Blackhearts did for me.

3 Stars Briana

The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates: Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson

Magic Marks the SpotInformation

Goodreads: Magic Marks the Spot
Series: The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates #1
Source: Purchased
Published: September 10, 2013

Review

The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates: Magic Marks the Spot will hit the spot for readers who love their adventures bold but silly.  When High Society girl Hilary Westfield is denied an apprenticeship with the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates (VNHLP) for being female, she goes to make her own luck at sea and signs for the crew of a freelance pirate.  She brings her best friend for luck, the gargoyle who has always been the protector of the Westfield House and has dreams of being a pirate himself (with a proper hat!).  But the villains are not who they seem, and the band of ruffians Hilary and the gargoyle have joined may not be the scariest sailors on the High Seas.  The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates walks a fine line between portraying pirating as unsavory and as fun, making it a sure hit for everyone who has dreamed of having adventures at sea.

I admit I’m somewhat surprised to find the “girl is denied entry to a boy’s profession and then proves she’s as good as the men” story line still going strong.  I certainly don’t deny the existence of misogyny in our society, but this isn’t generally how it manifests itself anymore, so I’m interested that it’s appealing to the current generation of young readers, even if the reductive explanation is “Well, this story takes place in some unspecified olden time, so this practice makes sense in that context.”  At any rate, I bought into every minute of it, so I guess I’m as enthusiastic about girl power stories as anyone.  Plus, The Very Nearly League of Pirates does a good job of portraying all kinds of girl power; “proper” finishing girls can be just as kickass as pirates.

My favorite character, however, is not Hilary but the gargoyle.  Besides how stylish he looks in a hat, he is funny, brave, and kind—the perfect protagonist’s companion for any middle grade novel.  He’s enthusiastic about nearly everything and always willing to help.  The adventure certainly wouldn’t be half as fun without him, and I look forward to seeing him in the next book.  I also enjoyed his interview that came as an “extra” with the book, and I don’t think he’s half wrong in asking to retitle the book The Magnificent Gargoyle.  I would read that novel.

Most of all, however, I loved that this book is half silly and half serious, one of the reasons I love middle grade.  I don’t think I would find a fearsome pirate being forced to dress up as a beet (every beet merchant needs a mascot!) for a disguise in a YA or adult novel.  But, beyond the quirks, the book also makes some very good points about whether you should assume someone is good or bad based on their social class and whether it’s appropriate for someone to step away from responsibility simply because they’re tired of it.  Sure, some of the issues raised could probably be explored a bit more than they are, but overall this book is nearly perfect.  I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Recommended for fans of Pilfer Academy, Castle Hangnail, and Witch Wars.

4 starsBriana

The Pirate Princess by Jeremy Whitely, Rosy Higgins, and Ted Brandt

Princeless 3Information

Goodreads: Pirate Princess
Series: Princeles #3
Source: Library
Published: June 2015

Summary

Adrienne has busted out of her tower along with the help of her guard dragon Sparky and now she’s on a mission to rescue her sisters from their various prisons.  But when she finds another princess trapped in a tower, Adrienne knows she has to rescue Raven Xiantao, daughter of the pirate king and sworn enemy of her own father, King Ashe. Soon she’s swept up in Raven’s quest for revenge, but can the two overcome their differences before Raven’s enemies destroy them both?

Review

The Pirate Princess sidetracks heroine Adrienne from her mission to save her sisters as she rescues Raven, daughter of the pirate king, and helps Raven to reclaim her ship.  Though the storyline is slightly reminiscent of a mini quest in a video game, seeing as it holds little relevance to the main plot, Raven’s fiery spirit will no doubt endear her to many a reader, and make this volume a welcome addition to the Princeless series.

The commitment to representation made by the series is evident from the beginning–Raven comes from an Asian-inspired culture and she is clearly a lesbian.  The story introduces these elements without comment, make its case for diversity by making diversity natural.  Of course, making all the diverse heroines generally awesome does not hurt it case, either!

Though the Princeless series works hard to defy stereotypes and to subvert typical anti-feminist story elements, initially this volume seemed to have, ironically, fallen into one of the more annoying anti-feminist scenarios.  Since Raven and Adrienne are both strong females, of course they have to fight each other to see who would win!  Fortunately, the characters soon work out their differences and recognize their mutual awesomeness–and one could argue that their initial moment of jealousy is simply a sign of their humanity.  Still, I wish that fight scene has been avoided altogether, loaded as it is with anti-feminist connotations.

Besides the random fight and its amazingly quick resolution, The Pirate Princess proves another fun romp with Adrienne and her friends going up against the patriarchy.  Bedelia sadly receives little story time, but Raven’s wit, combat skills, and sassiness almost make up for this lack.  It is nice to see female with actual combat training featured–watching Adrienne take out all the king’s men when she can barely hold a sword may be funny, but it does not make a lot of sense.

The Pirate Princess is a lighthearted and humorous interlude in the Princeless series.  It serves little purpose in regards to the plot, other than to provide some political information that could easily have been inserted by other means, but the story possesses heart and humor enough to allow it to stand on its own.  I am sure I am not the only reader early awaiting Raven’s return in an upcoming installment.

Krysta 64

If You Like Pirates, Then Read….

If You Like, Then Read is a feature where we offer reading suggestions based on books you already like, scheduled once a month. If you have more suggestions, feel free to tell us in the comments! You can check out the rest of these lists here

if you like

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in the world, is about to marry the most handsome prince–unless the Dread Pirate Roberts can stop them.  Goldman tells the story with only the “good parts.”

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

A classic English novel about a young boy who finds a treasure map and his subsequent adventures with a band of pirates.

Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson

Hilary Westfield would rather be at sea than studying at finishing school, so, naturally, she runs away to answer an advertisement seeking for pirate crew. A middle grade adventure from Harper Collins. The book will be released in September 2013.

Pirates! by Celia Rees

Displeased with life on a Jamaican plantation, Nancy Kington runs away with a servant girl to join a band of pirates in the hopes of finding individuality and freedom.  A young adult novel from Bloomsbury.

Pirateology: The Pirate Hunter’s Companion by Dugald A. Steer

All the information about pirates you could ever want in one beautifully bound book.  It features maps, charts, a hidden treasure map, pirate letters, treasure, and more.  Part of the ‘Ology series from Candlewick.

The Gingerbread Pirates by Kristin Kladstrup

This charmingly illustrated picture book features the daring Captain Cookie as he sets off on a quest to save the other gingerbread men from being eaten by Santa Clause on Christmas Eve.  Published by Candlewick.

Steel by Carrie Vaughn

Summary: During a family vacation in the Bahamas, Jill finds washed up on the beach a piece of an old, rusted rapier that transports her back in time to a pirate ship.  Jill wants desperately to return home, but a connection between her and the sword means that, to do so, she first must defeat the most dreaded pirate to sail the seas.

Review: Steel strikes one primarily as a not-so-subtle attempt to educate the reader on sundry topics.  Descriptions of fencing, ships, sailing, and the historical pirate pepper the work, admittedly adding realism to the tale, but also interrupting the action.  Fencing commands and moves serve as chapter titles.  This particular attempt to impart knowledge fails, however, because the chapters include no explanations of the terms, making the titles meaningless—unless, of course, the reader notes by chance the existence of a Glossary at the end of the book.  Since no Table of Contents exists, the majority of Vaughn’s audience will most likely make this discovery only after having completed the story.  To understand the significance of each title in relation to the action in each chapter, however, one would then have to reread the book.  Unfortunately, I personally did not find Steel worth rereading.

I would never claim to have any knowledge about either ships or pirates, yet I found myself already familiar with almost all the information Vaughn chose to convey.  This made me feel a bit as if the author were speaking down to me, especially because she tends to explain directly how a ship sails, why the hull must be cleaned, etc., rather than inserting this information naturally as part of the tale.   The educational tone of the work bored me and I eventually found myself skipping whole paragraphs, and then whole pages, just so I could finish the book as quickly as possible.

The ending, however, rather underwhelmed me.  The author never gives a clear explanation for the working of the magic in the story and she never elaborates on just how Jill’s experience has changed her as a person.  I had entertained the idea that Jill’s time on a pirate ship would transform her outlook on life, make her more confident, make her appreciate everything she has.  Maybe Vaughn meant me to fill in these blanks by myself in the little she gave me, but I ultimately felt betrayed because the author did not give me the expected closure.  Fans of pirates will enjoy this book for the glimpse it gives of life on the seas, but the story itself is weak.

Published: 2011