Kyra can come to my sleepover, IF she brings her potions kit
Kyra is the kind of main character I like, but don't LOVE. She's determined, loyal (to some), and prepared to do whatever it takes to do the right thing—even if it's heartbreakingly hard. So, MAJOR respect points.
She's also an awesome potions master, which is just flat out cool (just try to imagine how much more amazing a sleepover party would be with an actual potions master in attendance!). All the potions talk added about a million points to the book for the sheer "I wish that were real" factor.
But, Kyra's also prickly, and much as I do like prickly characters, her style of prickly made her a little hard to get close to. She's always pushing people away, which is a trait I don't tend to like, especially when the reasons are as thin and unexplained as Kyra's were. I don't like it when I start to roll my eyes and yell at the main character because I think they're behaving in unnecessary ways.
Kyra's first-person narrative voice did help me like her a lot more than I would have had this been written in third person. Her internal feelings and explanations prevented me from actually disliking her when she did things I didn't think she should. So those actions turned into a slightly annoying quirk of someone you know and love rather than something that full on annoyed me.
Kyra also loses a few points because she isn't a big animal lover. She's more of a grudging tolerator eventually evolving toward unadmitted liker. So, good, eventually, but not great. I just can't fully get on board with a character who hardens her heart to the charms of adorable animals.
It's sweet and it's sort of a slow burn hate-turned-love type of romance, but not quite. It's also totally the lite version of those types of romance. There were undeniably a handful of swoony moments and the banter was great (their initial meeting is darn near perfect), but the overarching vibe of the romance was more Jessica Day George style middle grade cute than swoooooony.
Which can be totally fine, just so long as you go into it expecting Jessica Day George style romance and not fainting-couch, be-still-my-heart, hand-fanningly hot swoon (and while I knew I wasn't going to be getting the latter—this IS a Disney book!—I was hoping for something a little more YA than MG, so cue my very mild disappointment).
With the exception of his name (Fred?? Sorry Harry Potter fans, I just can't swoon over that name!), he's a pretty great guy. He's funny, sweet, adventurous, and clever.
But...maybe he's a little *too* great. He's always so happy-go-lucky (gosh, I might even call him chipper) and while that's nice and all, I like my male leads to be a little sarcastic. I'd even go so far as to say I like them to be a little surly.
And manlier, definitely manlier. Fred is very boyish.
I also can't help but be disappointed by his niceness because that robbed me of the "hate" part of the hate-turned-love romance. Kyra definitely doesn't not fall for him right away and they DO have some fun banter, but this was a very one-sided hate. The whole thing lacked the combative spark I hope for.
Fred seemed mildly amused with Kyra's attitude and gamely tagged along with whatever she was doing. I also never truly understood why he loved her. He was charming and sweet to her from the beginning and his attitude toward her never really changed.
Was it love at first sight for him? If so, why? (and, if so, bummer. I am so NOT a fan of love at first sight, which is pretty much the antithesis of hate turned love).
While the friendship between Kyra and Princess Ari doesn't come close to a Ten Tissues on the Beaches Scale of Friendship, it IS a super sweet friendship and gets points for making me want to break into spontaneous hugging.
Their friendship added depth to Kyra and I found myself liking Kyra the best when she was with Ari. Kyra softened and loosened up a little whenever Ari was around. Putting Ari in Kyra's presence was like handing a puppy to a grumpy person and defying them to look into the puppy's little puppy face and try not to smile.
Not only that, but I truly felt for Kyra and her predicament as a result of this friendship. Kyra was trying to protect her kingdom, but her heart was breaking as a result. If I didn't see her friendship with Ari, I never would have been as emotionally invested in Kyra's plight as I was and I don't know that I would have liked her as much as I did.
Also, on the topic of friendships, who knew a pig could be so cute? I practically broke out into out-loud-awwws every time Rosie was mentioned.
Plot and all that
Everything moves pretty quickly with a little bit travel/questing, a little bit of mystery, and a little bit of back story. So, basically, most of my favorite plot elements. Everything reads very, very easy.
As in, take the time you would normally need to read a 288 page book and cut that time in half. Really. The chapters are short, the font is big, and it's super light reading.
The plot isn't entirely linear, taking a few trips down flashback lane. It was a little jarring and definitely hindered the momentum of the story, but it did help avoid info-dumps. Added bonus was how it fleshed out Kyra and the princess's friendship by showing instead of telling. This was VERY effective.
Most scenes ended up holding more significance than they at first appeared to and looped back around to tie in together at the end. Most of this was fantastic, though one connection seemed to come out of nowhere and I don't think it was really necessary.
Still, it was kind of neat, so I think I'd rather Bridget Zinn had spent more time fleshing this part out so it was less random and could have contributed even more to Kyra's character development (though I do recognize why this probably didn't happen).
It was all fun and kept me guessing throughout, but everything was almost a little *too* fast for me. I know, I know, I love fast-paced plots, but in this case the briskness felt rushed and under-developed. I wanted everything to be expanded just a little bit more. As it was, everything had a very sketched, outliney feel (though it's an outline for a fantastic book).
Where the star went
That would be because of the writing. Wait, don't panic. The writing is fine. There aren't any grammatical errors or annoying similes or anything like that.
It's more that Poison felt like a draft that hadn't been fully fleshed out and finished yet. It made me think of Buffy's cookie dough analogy where she explains that she hasn't finished baking yet.
Let's forget for a minute that not-entirely-cooked-cookies are actually superior to the fully-cooked alternative and just go with it.
Poison is like Buffy's analogy. It's something really wonderful with the potential to be fantastic like warm, delicious cookies...when it's finally done baking. All the right elements are there: intricate plot, unique developments, crazy cool potions, intriguing mystery, and likable characters. It could have SO been a Special Shelf book.
But it's not done baking.
I had pined over Poison ever since I read the blurb and got those "This could be *THAT* book!" vibes. My hopes were SKY HIGH and I ended up having a lot of trouble reading Poison because of all my mixed emotions (I never want this to end! This is amazing! This is everything I've been looking for! No, no, I don't want to admit that this ISN'T *quite* everything I'd hoped it would be).
I was so torn that I actually put the book down at the halfway point and read a few books in between. Poison ended up being a book like To Catch a Pirate where I love it and will for sure own a copy and re-read it in that Special Shelf way, but it falls short of actually being a Special Shelf book.
When I re-read, I'll always have that little nagging feeling where my brain is trying to push the book into being what I feel it almost is, but isn't quite.
Still, I WILL re-read it and I wish the author were still alive to write more books because I would immediately add her to my Authors to Watch list.
I've carted this book through three moves and before moving a fourth time I figured it'd be in my back's best interest to decide if this was worth schlepping again.
So is it? Eh, yes and no. I have access to e-copies through the library, and that's enough "ownership" for me. Now that I've read my paper copy, I think I'll trade it in at the local used bookstore for something else.
But that isn't to say I didn't enjoy the book. The premise is so different and engaging. I was hooked over the entire 400+ pages. The chapters are also tiny, which always helps.
The mystery starts out with trying to figure out what happened to Annaliese, why she disappeared for a year and where she spent that year since her memories of that time are gone. Once that mystery starts unfolding, then another more paranormal mystery takes shape. Then as that mystery starts revealing itself, the mystery of what is Annaliese going to decide to do captured my interest. Each mystery was engaging and flowed seamlessly into one another, which kept the momentum of the overall story up and my interest never flagged.
While that is a lot of stuff and makes up for a good bit of the massive 400+ pages, there's also a lot of people drama mixed in filling up a lot of those pages. The parts with Annaliese's family had me hook, line, and sinker. Probably because I'm a sucker for heart-felt family stuff that feels secure and fluffy and loving. There a fierce love that felt palpable and gut-wrenching and good.
And then there was the romance, and that paled in comparison. It felt tacked on as the Required YA Romance, and while I fully admit I'm the kind of reader who generally wants a touch of romance in everything and whines when it's not there...I could have done without it here. Also, the teenage high school drama (friendship, mean girl, ex-boyfriend, new boyfriend, yada yada) was boring.
Part of me thinks this is because I'm old and not a teenager, and therefore also not the target audience. Part of me thinks it's because those sections were more filler and slowed down and interrupted the paranormal and mystery aspects of the storyline. Part of me thinks they were kinda necessary too though. So, maybe it would have been better if they had been kept in, but trimmed a little.
At one point I was tempted to just give this book away without reading it (cover judged it, still don't like the cover), but I'm glad I didn't do that. I'm glad I read this book. It was different, engaging, and touching. The paranormal bits weren't the typical thing, and I was overall satisfied with them. But, now that the mysteries are over, I'm ok with letting it go.
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?!!?!)