Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The Captive Kingdom by Jennifer A. Nielsen, 2020

WARNING: This is the fourth book in the Ascendance Trilogy, and has major spoilers even in the description. If you haven't read at least The False Prince (one of the first books I ever reviewed), go away!

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on Goodreads 
In a peaceful Carthya, Jaron leads as the Ascendant King with Imogen beside him -- but the peace he fought so long for is not destined to last.

On a routine sea voyage, Jaron's ship is brutally attacked, and he is taken hostage. The mysterious captors and their leader, Jane Strick, accuse Jaron of unthinkable acts. They are also in possession of some shocking items -- including the crown and sword that belonged to Jaron's older brother, Darius. The items unearth a past Jaron thought he had put behind him.

Though it seems impossible, Jaron must consider: Could Darius be alive? And what does Strick want from Jaron? Against his will, Jaron will be pulled back into a fight for the throne -- and a battle to save his kingdom.
(384 pages)

    Let's start by getting the fangirling out of the way: I can't believe Nielsen brought this series back!! I was a massive fan of the original trilogy (especially, if not mostly, of The False Prince) and I have always missed reading about Jaron's escapades. Nielsen is great at putting her characters into seemingly impossible situations and then having them think their way out, but no one - no one - can top Jaron's sheer genius. Especially not anyone as charismatic and fun to read about. Also, on a lesser but still important note, I am yet again in love with a cover. The Ascendance series has such gorgeous covers that I often find myself staring at them, and I'm pleased to say that the rich purples of The Captive Kingdom joins the blue, green and red of the other books in being absolutely stunning. 

    Okay, now let's talk review. I thought the characters were well done here. Imogen isn't on-screen a lot, but she feels like a more fleshed-out person than she did in many of the earlier books. My main issue with her was, honestly, we already know how her piece of the story will end (they literally tell us before the book begins) so it is hard to get too invested in any drama involving her. Also, I didn't really agree with her (and everyone else's, to some extent) criticisms of Jaron's tendency to keep things close to his chest. Trust issues are understandable with his background, and also it makes sense not to give people information that they could be tortured for later! But anyway, Tobias is still a good side-kick, Amarinda is barely in it at all, and Fink (who I'm ashamed to admit I'd forgotten about until Jaron reminded me who he was) is super cute and very much a scene-stealer. I had a bone to pick with Roden's plotline, which seemed to echo a lot of stuff from the earlier books as he once more is pitted against Jaron, but Nielsen kept things fresh enough that I stopped grumbling about it by the end.

    As for the new characters, they're all pretty interesting and well-done. The women they meet - both allies and villains - are relatively complex and interesting characters, and I enjoyed trying to understand them. As for the "Darius" character (no spoilers on whether he's really Jaron's older brother!), that was such an interesting premise for Nielsen to go with. He doesn't enter until about halfway through the book, but the idea of him is already messing with Jaron's head much sooner than that. It's heartbreaking to see Jaron try to wrestle with the idea that his brother could be alive, and to face hard questions about what sort of king he is and whether he might need to hand over his crown to someone else and relinquish all of that power. To be honest, though, this plotline also was the one that frustrated me the most. Besides some rather blatant attempts at retconning, I also just found most of "Darius'" words and actions to be frustrating and, honestly, a bit unrealistic. The way he acts toward Jaron is just a bit strange. That's all I can say without spoilers. I thought that Jaron's actions were very true to his character, though, and just reaffirmed my love for him.

    I also remembered how much I love Jaron in the last few chapters of the book, when plot twist after plot twist went flying and they were all completely plausible and also took me completely by surprise. It's been a long time since a book really shook my expectations that much, and I had such a blast flipping through pages with literally no idea what would happen next. It's a real roller-coaster of a book, and I am 100% here for Jaron's unreliable narration keeping me on my toes.

The Captive Kingdom doesn't beat out The False Prince, but I'd say it's at least as good as the other two books in the series. It's still settling into my head at the moment, but I'm currently ranking it tied with The Runaway King (my second favourite in the series) and it may very well steal that second-place spot. The action is well-paced, never becoming boring or dizzyingly fast. The premise is a good - and very interesting! - one, and the execution is pretty good. Overall, a very solid book and several hours very pleasantly spent. Now if only I could get my hands on The Shattered Castle (expected publication 2021)!

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