What had begun—and ostensibly ended—as a middle-grade trilogy will grow beyond three books next October, when Jennifer A. Nielsen adds The Captive Kingdom to her Ascendance series, which Scholastic launched in 2012 with The False Prince. The author followed up that fantasy, in which a defiant orphan named Sage is recruited to impersonate the king’s long-lost son and become a puppet prince, with The Runaway King (2013) and The Shadow Throne (2014). Readers took a shining to the story of Sage, who is crowned King Jaron of Carthya: the trilogy has one million copies in print in the U.S., and fans’ requests for more stories, and the protagonist’s own restless spirit, inspired Nielsen to continue the saga.
The underlying premise for The False Prince had long been brewing in Nielsen’s imagination. “I’ve always been fascinated with the notion of somebody being forced to impersonate royalty,” she recalled. “But I knew that such a weighty plot needed a main character strong enough to pull it off, and I couldn’t find him.”
She finally did—in an unlikely place. At the time, Nielsen was working part-time for a wilderness program for troubled youth. “My job was to compile the testing results for every kid who was to be enrolled in the program,” she explained. “There was one tough boy who was being sent to the program because he had broken every rule he possibly could. Some people doubted he could succeed in the program, but he ended up coming in first in every single marker of success, and did so well that he was the first one on his team who earned the right to send a letter home to his parents. I said to myself, ‘I really like this kid. I don’t want to raise him, but I want to write about him.’ And he became the inspiration for Sage.”
Nielsen was thoroughly captivated by her mischievous protagonist—but a bit nervous about setting him out into world with the release of The False Prince. “I knew this was a very bold book and felt that it would either do very well or be a total mess,” she said. “Sage is not like most protagonists, and I felt he was a big risk in terms of how readers would respond to him. I sensed that they were either going to love Sage and root for him or dislike him and think he needed a good whipping! So, I was very happy when readers fell in love with him so enthusiastically.”
A Persistent Voice Beckons Again
After penning two additional novels in which her hero survived life-threatening perils and rescued his country from dangers, Nielsen brought Sage’s story to a conclusion—or so she thought. Following The Shadow Throne’s release, the author received impassioned missives from fans pleading for a fourth book about the king of Carthya, and she responded with a promise. “I told readers that if he ever returned to my imagination, I would write another story about him,” Nielsen recalled. “For a long time, Sage was good, and there was no voice in my head. And then one day, out of the blue, he came back, and told me that he had nothing going on and was bored. We went back and forth, and I asked him what he wanted to do. When he said, ‘I’m ready for a little trouble,’ I had this weird, author-y moment and decided to keep my promise to readers.”
That was exceedingly good news to Lisa Sandell, editorial director of Scholastic Press, who has edited all the Ascendance novels. “When Jennifer told me that she was considering writing a fourth book and asked me what I thought, I immediately replied, ‘Yes, please.’ And when I asked for reactions to the idea at an acquisition meeting, everyone there repeated my very words!”
When the manuscript arrived, the editor was pleased and impressed to discover that “Jennifer had picked up exactly where she left off. King Jaron’s voice was as playfully snarky as ever, and the action once again kept me turning the pages. She dropped right back into this world without missing a beat—everything rang true.”
To coincide with the publication of The Captive Kingdom next fall, Scholastic will release repackaged paperback editions of the series’ first three books with new covers in the style of the fourth novel.
Sandell noted that extending the Ascendance series is also gratifying given the rousing response to the series from reluctant readers and their parents and teachers. “One of the reasons that Jennifer and I both felt that we wanted to keep the door open to possibly doing a fourth book was the fan mail that she has forwarded to me over the years,” the editor said. “She has received so many incredibly moving letters from parents saying that their children never had any interest in reading until they picked up this series.”
For Nielsen, this is the most satisfying mail to receive. “I think the biggest reward for me is hearing a child say that this is the first book I’ve ever read or that this book changed my life. That’s where I get very humble about what I do. My favorite story came from a boy who never read a single book before he read The False Prince—and then he saved his lunch money so he could buy the second book. So, when the third book came out, I sent him a copy, since I wanted him to both eat and read!”
Nielsen’s fans will have yet another chance to revisit Carthya, as the author said she will follow up The Captive Kingdom with a fifth Ascendance adventure. She again credits (or blames?) Sage for spurring her on. “I can’t help it—this kid gets in my head, and I’ve got to write,” she said. “There’s no point saying ‘no’ to him—he doesn’t care. I knew that he was going to stay there and bug me and keep me awake until I started writing. And so I did.”
The Captive Kingdom (The Ascendance #4) by Jennifer A. Nielsen. Scholastic Press, $17.99 Oct. 2020 ISBN 978-1-338-55108-2