I know, I'm disappointed too. The False Prince was filled with incredible tension, twists, and this underlying feeling that Sage was always ten steps ahead of me while I knew I was only able to figure out about five of those steps.
The Runaway King didn't have that. The tension I loved so much just wasn't there the same way. The situation was dire, sure, but something was missing.
Also, the pacing was a little off. It was never slow, but it felt uneven. Jaron felt a little lost and less sure, and I think his internal unsteadiness made the book somehow feel a little unsteady as well. I felt like the story took a little time to come into its own (I was able to put it down for a few days and read other books instead), whereas The False Prince was self-assured and gripping from page one.
What did you DO to my Sage?!
But my biggest complaint is Jaron himself. What I liked so much about Sage in The False Prince was his killer combination of sass and skill. He was cocky and incorrigible and his porous brain-to-mouth filter often led to beatings. And while I always like a smart aleck, they need substance to back up their bravado in order to avoid becoming irritating.
Sage had substance. His mocking comments were satisfying because they were straight up funny, but they also meant something. His goading sarcasm and insults, his irrepressible need to sneak, steal, and lie, they were all subtle manipulations as Sage secretly maneuvered every character until he had them exactly where he wanted them.
Sage had a plan, and his plan always worked (and even when a few wrenches were thrown into his carefully laid plans, he compensated quickly). Sage was funny and irreverent, but he was also deadly serious, skilled, and intelligent. He was Han Solo, but he was also Sherlock Holmes.
Somehow the latter skills were mostly lost in Sage's transformation into Jaron. Jaron is just as cocky, brash, and surly as Sage ever was, but his awesome ability to play mental chess seems to have disappeared. Jaron's plans are all half-cocked and poorly thought out. They're spurred by unfettered emotion and rely on chance and bravado with only a smattering of skill (he's still a masterful thief and swordsman).
The whole book read like an exercise in teaching Jaron humility and the Harry Potter tenet of "friendship will save the day," which is great and all (I love both Harry's friends and Jaron's), but I loved the awe I felt for Sage's near-prescient cleverness in The False Prince and I didn't want to see him knocked down a peg or two. Not to mention the sudden loss of his Sherlockian skills doesn't make much sense.
And, well, Jaron is a little bit of a, oh gosh, dare I say it, he has a touch of the Mary Sue to him. Everyone just loves him SO much and sometimes it felt a little unbelievable. Especially when I'm being beaten over the head with the humility, you-won't-win-without-help stick.
Except, even with all this, *I* still love him just as much as everyone else, so I guess it's really not unbelievable after all.
Ok, have you reset your expectations bar now?
Because those are the only non-flailing-all-over-myself-with-joy comments I'm going to make.
Are all my favorite characters back?
YES! While most only get an itty bitty amount of page time (Connor, LOVE to hate that man! Mott, Tobias, etc) all DO show up and play an important role.
Imogen also has a ton of important parts in The Runaway King and she is fantastic. She's clever, determined, and she shows that she has what it takes to hold her own in a relationship with Jaron. She's not afraid to roll her eyes at his antics and stubbornness, but she also clearly values and respects him as well. But, more on their relationship later.
The Runaway King also introduces a handful of new characters and they command more focus than the old characters in this installment. Which is fine, because they're all pretty awesome. The love-to-hate villain was nuanced enough but also satisfyingly depraved. There's an adorable boy Jaron takes under his wing who was so charming I actually paid as much attention to him as I did Jaron. A noble and a pirate thief round out the main cast and easily wormed their way into my heart.
But, unsurprisingly, The Runaway King is Jaron's book just as The False Prince was all about Sage. His lines are compulsively quotable and never failed to punch in all the right places. He suffers, he whines, he worries, learns, and grows (that last one's the biggie). He steals the stage in every single scene, and even though the other characters do a good job tugging back the spotlight, the main point of all of them is to provide banter and counterbalance to show off Jaron.
And I love it.
And the plot?
This is not a series stretching book, so let's all breathe a sigh of relief.
The False Prince left off with impending war and hints of internal strife in Jaron's court. The Runaway King ends with impending war, but Jaron has taken significant steps toward addressing the vipers in his own court.
I know I said Jaron's ability to play chess is significantly diminished in this book, and that's true, but it isn't totally gone. By the end of The Runaway King, he's selected and arranged his pieces across the board in bold, daring, and very clever ways that should prove interesting come book three.
Though, none of this happens at court. If you were hoping for a court book, then you're going to be disappointed. Whereas The False Prince took place all in one house like a game of Clue, The Runaway King sprawls across multiple kingdoms with Jaron (as Sage!) infiltrating the enclaves of nobles, thieves, and pirates. All with healthy doses of sword fighting, sneaking, charming, and stealing. This all steadily builds to an explosively awesome final fifty pages of pure WIN.
And, yes, it is as awesome as that all sounds.
This is the best love triangle ever! But no, it's not a love triangle like you're thinking.
Sage fell in love with Imogen in The False Prince and his relationship with her only grows stronger in The Runaway King. Even though I didn't even get one kiss (not even ONE, Ms Nielsen???), every single scene between the two of them was packed to the brim with swoon.
And, of course, it's the best kind of hate-tinged love, tense, bickering, eye-rolling, tons of respect, banter-filled swoon.
Except, Imogen is not the princess to whom Jaron is betrothed. So, yeah. Complications.
Complications which are made even more complicated by the fact that I pretty much adore Amarinda. She's sneaky and smart and courageous in a quiet, steady way. She would be an excellent queen and a wonderful counterpart to Jaron.
Their interactions are not as heated and spark-filled as those between Jaron and Imogen, but they reminded me of the subtle but deep and more mature relationship between the King and Queen of Attolia. I want to see the man Jaron becomes with a woman like Amarinda at his side.
But, but Imogen!
HOW do I choose?!
An explanation about that wonky rating
Look, I pull my ratings out of my gut and my heart, not my brain, so you can't expect them to always make objective sense.
"Special Shelf" means that I adore the book to pieces and want to make it my desert island book and I'll probably have to buy multiple copies because I'll wear them out due to all the re-reading I'll do. These are the books where I'll read my favorite scenes over and over and maybe even daydream about what if scenarios about making the characters real or magically getting sucked into the story myself.
Or they make me sob like a baby, but that's not this type of Special Shelf book. This is solidly the kind where I swoon my heart out and wish I could make Jaron real.
But it's not a perfect book, it didn't live up to my every expectation, and I didn't love it as much as The False Prince. So how can I give it the same star rating as The False Prince?
I can't. But it's still a Special Shelf book. So, there you go.
Fans of The False Prince should be very happy with The Runaway King, despite the differences. Don't expect the same book, but do expect a wonderful book.
Oh, and that cliffhanger ending? Thanks Jennifer Nielsen. Thanks a lot.
(No, really, thank you! Because you're promising war! And not just any war, but a siege war against unbeatable odds! Which is pretty much everything my fantasy-loving heart could ask for.)
(But also, I so hate you right now because, ack, that cliffhanger! How could you leave me hanging like this when I don't know what will happen to that character?!!?!)