Sometimes it seems like everything written in YA speculative fiction is part of a trilogy - or an even longer series of wrist-achingly heavy books - so it’s quite refreshing to read a well-crafted stand-alone every now and then. A Confusion of Princes is a thrilling adventure set in a futuristic intergalactic Empire, and the world-building is so vast and vividly imagined that I couldn’t help but wonder how on Earth (or in the Empire) the author was going to tie up the story in just one book. The bestselling author of The Old Kingdom series, Garth Nix utilizes a first-person narrative that allows for quick but detailed exposition and the conversational style, along with an action-packed plot and breathless pacing, kept me immersed from the first page to the last. My main feeling while reading? This book is fun!
Prince Khemri grows up convinced that he is the one and only heir to a massive intergalactic Empire – only to belatedly realise that in fact he is one of some ten million Princes (both male and female) all competing for the ultimate position of Emperor. Highly trained in psychic warfare and conditioned from early childhood to believe in his ultimate superiority, not just over ordinary humans but also among the genetically enhanced Princes, Khemri’s innate conscience and code of ethics give him a rare potential to rediscover his own humanity. Throughout the narrative Khemri looks back on his early naïve thought processes and unfortunate choices with a charmingly frank dismay, so it is easy to empathize with him despite his planet-sized ego. This is a good thing, because even in the first few pages he faces death enough times that it was necessary for me to be fully on his side!
The book’s style is fascinatingly reminiscent of a fantasy roleplaying game. Starting out at what could be seen as Level 1 with only a personal Master of Assassins and a couple of priests to their names, Princes are able to win or otherwise acquire more priests, apprentice assassins, and other human assets through their actions. The more priests a Prince has, the greater his or her ability to attack and defend against psychic attacks, in turn creating more opportunities to rise in status and power. The tendency for Princes to regard their human priests and assassins mere commodities reinforces the game-like atmosphere. Humans are cards in a Prince’s hand - useful, but disposable. Khemri, though, goes through several unusual experiences that begin to teach him otherwise. The plot twists expertly at the climax, and despite my disbelief that the story could not possibly be resolved in so few pages, I was proven wrong. Satisfied by the conclusion, yet hungry for more, I was delighted to turn over the last page and find that Nix had anticipated my desire and prepared dessert - a quirky short story set in the same universe!
Similar books on my favourites list…
The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones
Maddigan’s Fantasia by Margaret Mahy
Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
The Angel Experiment by James Patterson
For the Win by Cory Doctorow