Spoiler Warning: This review may contain spoilers. If you're the sort who actively avoids them (good for you!), you should go read the first two books in this trilogy instead of this review. ;)
Title: The Shadow Throne
Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
Genre: Medieval Fantasy
War has come to Carthya, the peaceful kingdom where young King Jaron is still learning how to rule. Surrounded by enemies advancing on all sides, Carthya is in need of saving now more than ever before. To stave off the invasion, Jaron sends some of his closest friends across enemy lines to find help and calls his countrymen to arms. He's just managed to establish himself as king in the hearts of his people, but nothing in all his adventures can prepare him for the sacrifices he must make to save his kingdom—or the losses he will suffer in the fight. In the end, who will sit on the throne of Carthya?
My sister likes to claim that I “hate sequels”. That's not true. What is true, however, is that many sequels simply fail to compare with their predecessor and end up being a disappointment to the reader. Some stories which cover more than one book begin incredibly well but slowly wane into mediocrity by the end, leaving the reader deeply dissatisfied.
I'm happy to say that Jennifer A. Nielsen does not disappoint. With The False Prince, Nielsen built up some incredible momentum and it doesn't slack off. Was The Shadow Throne as good as The False Prince? I'm not certain. There's always a wonderful freshness in the first of a trilogy that can simply not be found in the last story, sure. There are things you can do, surprises you can bring, in a first novel that won't work a second time around. All three of these novels are filled with plot twists, but after the first book, you're expecting them. Does that make them any less good? I don't think so. Even when a turn is expected, the form it takes can still blow you away.
Before I rave happily, there are a few cons to this, the final installment in the Ascendance Trilogy: I mentioned in my review of The Runaway King that there is a vaguely defined religion in the story world involving saints and demons. It is set out in more detail in The Shadow Throne that 'good' people are rewarded in the afterlife, accepted by the saints and joining them while the 'bad' people will join the trickster devils in the pit. Considering that Jaron frequently asks pardons, favors, and please-look-the-other-ways from the trickster devils, and that multiple other characters stride a thin line between 'good' and 'bad', this poses the question of who 'deserves' what. An interesting take in the first book, the unsubstantial religion of Jaron's world proved shallow in the third—when it was most needed and emphasized—and left something missing. I can't say I expected more, but when this shapes a major turning point in the story, it does leave something to be desired.
My only other complaint is with the title itself. While the implications are all there, nothing is ever writ in stone on the reasoning behind the title specifically. And that's a shame because I can see where the the idea was coming from and wish Nielsen had pursued it a bit more closely.
When all is said and done, I loved these books and when I got to the end of The Shadow Throne, I sat back with a sigh of contentment—made even nicer by the fact that the last book I read had left me discontented. Nielsen's sharp wit delivers through the viewpoint of her protagonist, and in the midst of the battles and plots, there is a warmth of adventure and friendship bringing it all to life.
These books will find a place in my own library someday in the not-too-distant future (somewhere between Funke's Inkheart and George's Dragon Slippers, perhaps). It's my pleasure to heartily recommend The Ascendance Trilogy.