I have many feelings about this series. MANY FEELS. Of the three books, I liked the second, Prince's Gambit best. The first, Captive Prince, I found absolutely harrowing. The second was much less harrowing: there was still violence but it was less intimate: conflict rather than abuse. The difference between being under the constant threat of death and the constant threat of torture. IN THEORY, I should be more worried about death, but in practice I find the prospect of torture worse. Sometimes I wonder if that's a side effect of depression. When you're used to fantasizing about death as an escape, it doesn't seem nearly as terrifying as having to endure horrors much worse than the life that left you suicidal. Anyway, maybe it's just me, but I found the first book engaging but traumatic. The second book was a fantastic exploration of the characters, still with lots of conflict and tension, but also lots of "protagonists being brilliant and talented in order to improve their position".
Kings Rising opens with several chapters that I found even more harrowing than the first book, because now instead of horrible things happening to characters I didn't care about, these were inflicted on ones I loved. I found it powerful but, to my surprise, not unpleasant. Books that do horrible things usually make me want to stop reading, but here I just wanted to see what would happen next, whether it was awful or not. And I wanted explanations: a reason for some of the extreme emotional abuse being dished out. So that impressed me, that throughout reading it I never wanted to put it down. (I did, because I had to work, but I didn't WANT to.)
Kings Rising displays an emotional intimacy of considerable range: not just love and lust, but the kind of deep cruelty and pain that only happens when someone loves a person who mistreats them, whether by accident or design. There are many highs and lows, and I rode them often with glee. Even the lows; I think that's because this is a romance and I was depending on a happily-ever-after, rather than being abandoned in a pit of misery. This was also well-done and engaging.
Some of the characters in the book are brilliant planners, and there's a sense of wonder, the I-didn't-see-that-coming-but-I-should've,
The climax in particular felt overwrought rather than brilliant. One of those where the characters are in way more trouble than it looks like they can possibly get out of, and then they manage it, and on the one hand you're glad, but on the other you're like "that rescue wasn't very plausible or brilliant". This is my problem with the common 'up the stakes' advice writers get: the more trouble protagonists are in, the more likely it is that the solution will throw me out of the story by seeming too unlikely.
But my biggest fault with the book is it ends like a page after the climax. I HATE THAT. If you're one of those people who likes Hollywood endings, where the credits roll 30 seconds after the protagonists win, then you will be fine with this. I am not fine with this. I don't want to get kicked out of bed right after the climax: I want some post-coital cuddling. SHEESH. This one actually annoys me much more than the lack of brilliance in the climax, because I know how tough it is to balance a challenge for your characters. But how hard is it to write some pages of your characters dealing with other loose ends, or living happily together, or SOMETHING after the big resolution? I'm not asking to be blown away by cleverness here, I just want to have some denouement.
I am going to stop nitpicking here, because the truth is that my complaints are based in significant measure on my expectations. I expected a 9 or even a 9.5 from Kings Rising, and I only got an 8. And the disappointment will make me review it like a 7, and it deserves better than that. This is an emotionally powerful book with many brilliant moments and flashes of genius. It is a flawed diamond, to be sure, but still a diamond, and still recommended.