Being the first Middle Grade novel I’ve read since the Harry Potter binge of aught four, Jennifer Nielsen’s The False Prince (and subsequent novels) was something of a dip into the unknown. Truth be told, I began the endeavor solely because I’m on the make for novels my four year old and I can read together. While the Nielsen novels are perhaps a little too dramatic (read intense) for her, the first one, False Prince, was an absolute delight to me. It is unfortunate that the well was poisoned by the following two novels written as they were with contempt for the reader’s perceptiveness.
The story begins with, Conner, a nobleman of the court, seeking a lookalike for the king’s long-lost son. His plan involves installing the youth as a puppet prince, and thus stabilizing a kingdom on the ropes after the death of the royal family. Four orphans are recruited to compete for the role, including a punk named Sage. Among the four, Sage is the most savvy. As he begins to uncover Conner’s plans he becomes more and more concerned about the role he’ll play.
Nielsen’s setup sings because Sage is a loveable combination of Han Solo, Locke Lamora, and Dennis the Menace. However, written from Sage’s first person point of view, there is a great deal of heavy handed information management through the novel. Sage isn’t what he appears and it’s a conscious choice he makes to hide it. But, not only is it hidden from other characters, it’s also hidden from the reader. Nothing is revealed within the narration until the author deems it necessary via expository dialogue. Were the novel written in the third person, or utilized a plot device that made Sage’s opacity reasonable, my complaints would be much diminished. As it stands the narrator is intentionally misleading the reader for no reason I can glean. There are also convenient moments where Sage’s narration goes dark so that he can do secret things without the reader knowing about it. It puts a distance between the reader and the first person narrator that makes the entire choice of perspective off-putting. With that caveat, False Prince is an entertaining novel for an adult reader and probably gangbusters for a young one.
I expected a similar experience with the follow-up, The Runaway King. By and large those expectations bore out, suffering as it does from the same narrative issues. However, the changes in Sage from ragamuffin to royal are such that he’s no longer a plucky street rat struggling to survive, but a selfish, mean, and arrogant princling. All that is consistent with the character, but when combined with the extant narration issues and an ending more contrived than a M. Night Shyamalan film, the result is a deeply unsatisfying novel.
By the time the final novel, The Shadow Throne, arrived I found myself substantively worn down by the same recycled patterns. Not just with the narrative techniques, but with its actual shape. In each of the three novels Sage (or Jaron as he’s known in the subsequent two) walks into what he knows is a trap despite everyone’s warnings, gets caught, and does something amazing to escape and succeed. The tragedies you would expect from the first novel come to fruition and are resolved happily in equal measure. Despite all the nasty things that happen to our protagonist and his friends they are largely unchanged by the experience, a little older and wiser perhaps, but not broken in the ways such an experience is likely to leave them.
If these critiques seem out of bounds for a novel written for children, then we are at something of an impasse. I believe very strongly that every reader, regardless of age, deserves respect from the author. Even if lazy writing will slip by your reader, I believe in an obligation to make it internally consistent. Nielsen disregards this time and again in the second and third novels. While the first is occasionally frustrating with its manipulative narrator, the story is one that does not rely on contrived plot devices or deus ex machina to resolve its conflicts.
The Ascendance Trilogy as a whole, then, is not something I would recommend to a reader of any age. However, the first novel is absolutely worth a look and provides enough of an ending that additional reading is hardly necessary. Even for those readers most committed to completing a character’s arc won’t miss much as the Sage of the first novel is functionally dead by the start of the second. In this juxtaposition I see both the great and not-so-great of the middle grade reading level. Built around wonderful pace and clever characters and unburdened narratives, the Ascendance Trilogy is a blast to read. Ultimately though it is a shallow piece of fiction that offers very little to a reader outside the aforementioned qualities.