Contains grumbling and spoilers.
In contrast to Jen’s enthusiastic review of The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, my latest encounter with a sequel wasn’t nearly as fun. The Shadow Throne, by Jennifer A. Nielsen, did exactly what I hoped it wouldn’t do. Instead of challenging Jaron by making him stay put and acting kingly (e.g., deal with court intrigue and order people around like commanding a chess board), the book lets him go gallivanting around the countryside again, basically saving the kingdom single-handed. It would be impressive if we hadn’t seen him do this twice before, with much the same formula:
Step 1: panic over a crisis, in this case, the impending war as several armies march on Carthya and the kidnapping of his beloved Imogen.
Step 2: formulate a strategy, one that allows Jaron to do whatever he likes. In the last book it meant running off to confront the pirates. In this book, he sends his right-hand man to save Imogen (following, for once, the counsel of his advisers)—but fate, or rather, the plot, pushes him to mount a one-man rescue.
Step 3: to battle! I don’t remember who they’re fighting against or why they’re important, but believe me when I say there are many battles. One involves a dam scene reminiscent of The Two Towers movie, and there seems to be some improbable physics involving a collision with a cliff.
Step 4: Jaron is taken prisoner and beaten up, because that’s what happens when a reigning king invades an enemy camp. Predictably enough, he insults his captors and eventually escapes—twice in this book, and at least once in each of the prequels.
Step 5: the main female characters—Amarinda and Imogen—have various adventures, most of which occur off-the-page. Some other women show up in battle for a few pages. And that, I’m afraid, is the extent of the XX presence. It’s particularly disappointing to see Imogen’s role reduced throughout the series, from a major character in The False Prince, to an intriguing spy in The Runaway King, and now, a token prisoner/love interest.
Step 6: the denouement, where Jaron executes a clever escape. Was there ever any doubt the series would end happily?
As the series progressed, I found myself caring less and less about Jaron. Instead of growing and changing, he’s essentially the same character at the end that he was at the beginning. One gets the feeling the kingdom would fall apart without his one-man intervention, yet he has no superpowers (unless you count inexplicably climbing out of a prison with a broken leg and the noted cliff collision), just luck and stubbornness. But what might look impressive to others is old hat to him. The true challenge would have been staying at court while others micromanage the situation, à la Eugenides in The King of Attolia. It also would have allowed the other characters to step out of Jaron’s large, all-obscuring shadow.