I first read The Ascendance Series (what used to be The Ascendance Trilogy) by Jennifer A. Nielsen in 2013, and I fell in love with the world and characters of this amazing fantasy, action/adventure series. When I finished the explosive third book, I was satisfied with the ending and have since re-read all three books too many times to count. However, it was announced in 2020 that Neilsen is releasing a fourth book to this series, which had previously been believed to be a trilogy. Fans—including myself—are extremely ready to dive back into the Kingdom of Carthya and discover what new trouble the characters have gotten into.
In preparation for the release of this highly-anticipated novel, I decided to re-read the series once again and take a look at just what makes these adventures so thrilling. To do so, we’ll examine three themes of the novels: identity, freedom, and pain.
From the very beginning of this book, we’re thrust into a battle between freedom and identity. What pickpocket orphan Sage longs for more than anything in the world is the freedom to do whatever he wants to do and to be whomever he wants to be. Unfortunately for Sage, when he meets the ambitious noble Bevin Conner, he loses all semblance of choice; he must take on the identity of the missing prince and lose his freedom to Conner…or he’ll be killed.
What would you do in this situation? How important is your freedom or your identity? How much pain would you suffer to get what you desire?
Besides freedom and identity, one other theme runs throughout the series: pain. Sage faces unbearable pain every step (sometimes literally) of the way, yet he pushes on and fights for what he believes in. In today’s world of so much suffering, I look to Sage as an example of how to keep going even when everyone else says it’s impossible.
Favorite Scene in This Book: I love when Sage and Imogen talk for the first time. Imogen is an amazing character: strong, fierce, and smart. She doesn’t let Sage get away with anything, and she’s always there to patch him up when he undoubtedly comes back with a few injuries. I love her scenes, but I wish she was involved in the plot a bit more. Even still, the first conversation between Sage and Imogen sets up their fantastic relationship and what’s to come for them in the future.
Favorite Character in This Book: Sage! Clever, sassy, and brave, he is such a fun narrator of this series. I love the side remarks he makes and the ways he solves problems and comes up with plans I never would have thought of. He’s also fiercely loyal, and although he struggles making friends, once he makes a friend, he keeps them for life. It’s been an honor to read these books through his voice.
Overall Rating: Second favorite book in the series.
After ending the first book with one of the biggest twists I’ve ever read (SPOILER ALERT) and revealing that Sage actually is the missing prince Jaron, the second book picks up with the funeral for Jaron’s family and an assassination attempt on the very first page. In this second book, Jaron struggles a lot with his identity. He’s the real prince, but his people still see the mischievous little boy that entertained them four years ago. We see Jaron being patronized by the captain of his guard and his regents as they decide to vote for a steward to rule. With a threat to his kingdom and his life, Jaron has to prove to his people and—most importantly—to himself that he truly is ready to rule.
As for freedom, Jaron willingly gets himself kidnapped in order to face the pirates and he is constantly being locked up (a common theme throughout the series). However, the main fight for freedom is one that Jaron has with the regents. They want to install a steward until Jaron comes of age, but Jaron can see that war is on the horizon. He has to fight for his freedom to rule and to defend his kingdom from imminent war.
And as for pain…well, Jaron spends most of the book in one kind of pain or another. From being branded to getting his leg shattered, Jaron taught me persistence in this book. If I’m facing something that seems impossible, I often think of Jaron climbing a cliff with a shattered leg and how he just put one foot or hand in front of the other and didn’t let his pain stop him. In my opinion, that’s the most valuable lesson from this series: Just. Keep. Going.
Favorite Scene in This Book: My absolute favorite scene in the entire series is when Jaron climbs the cliff with a shattered leg. Every time I read it, even though I know what’s coming, my jaw drops because of the sheer tenacity Jaron shows. Sometimes, I can’t quite believe that Jaron manages to survive.
Favorite Character in This Book: Imogen! Even though Jaron is somewhat cruel to her at the beginning of the book in order to protect her, she goes to the pirates because she knows he’s going to need her. We can also see the relationship between them growing in this book, which is very fun. I love how she knows that Jaron will end up in danger, so she plants flowers with knives hidden underneath all over Tarblade Bay. Even after she leaves the pirates, she still manages to help Jaron when he finds one of these knives and uses it in the final battle against Roden.
Overall Rating: Favorite book of the series!
I think freedom is the most important theme of this book because they’re fighting a war for freedom: the freedom to live as they are and not under King Vargan and Avenia’s rule. Jaron is also fighting for his own freedom; if they lose the war, he’ll be executed or forced to become a puppet king. They are also fighting for Carthya’s identity as a kingdom, as well as for each of their identities: Roden as captain of the guard, Tobias as a regent, Amarinda as the (possible) future queen, and Jaron as the king of Carthya. When Jaron is suffering in Avenia’s camp, he questions himself and his identity. This is one of the most agonizing sections to read, but not just because of the questions. Jaron also faces so much pain in this section, both pain in his heart from Imogen’s supposed death and literal pain as the Avenians try to force him to reveal Carthya’s secrets. However, by the end of the book, Jaron learns that a throne doesn’t make him a king; he’s a king at heart.
Favorite Scene in This Book: The execution. This is my second favorite scene in the entire series because of Jaron’s cleverness! The amount of thought he puts into his plan throughout the book, even at the beginning when so much was uncertain, blows my mind. Nielsen is such an amazing writer; she takes us down to the dungeons and the belief that the war is lost and Jaron will die, and then with a cleverly executed (pun intended) plan, brings us and Carthya out on top.
Favorite Character in This Book: It’s a tie between Amarinda and Mott. Amarinda is so noble and willing to do whatever it takes to save Carthya. This is also the first book where Jaron and Amarinda are friends, so we get to see a different side to her through Jaron’s eyes. I also love how she ends up with Tobias because you can really see how much they love each other. On the other hand, Mott is so loyal to Jaron. Even though he and Jaron disagree, Mott never gives up on Jaron and is with him to the very end.
Overall Rating: Third favorite book in the series.
Altogether, this series is chock-full of action and adventure (and pain), and it brings to the forefront questions about identity and freedom. I absolutely loved this re-read of the series, and I can’t wait to see what adventures are included in The Captive Kingdom!
Be sure to stay tuned for our review of Nielsen’s newest addition to this series, The Captive Kingdom! The book is releasing on October 6, 2020, and I’ll be reviewing it on October 26, so check back then to hear my thoughts on this addition to one of my favorite series!
PRR Writer, Wendy Waltrip