A Confusion of Princes
I’m an ardent fan of Garth Nix. His trilogy, Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen rank in my top 100 Best Books of All Time. No, it’s not an official, written-down-on-paper sort of list. I wish it was. That’s actually a good idea. But it would take too long and require lots of effort, so how about I just do this review instead? In particular, I love the audiobook versions of this trilogy, read by Tim Curry and in my top 10 list of Best Audiobook Recordings of All Time. Not a real list either, I’m just spit-ballin’ here.
Where the Abhorsen trilogy was fantasy/steam punk (before steam punk was actually a thing), A Confusion of Princes is straight up science fiction. All these years I’ve been waiting for another Garth Nix book that was outside the realm of the Abhorsen world and I never suspected that Nix had this up his sleeve. One thing that Nix does well is world-building. This universe he crafts is one full of oppressed people, dominated by a omniscent emperor and his millions of “princes” who are essentially the military of the empire. Young men and women are taken as babies and given physical and mental alterations and enhancements to create them into the nearly indestructible fighting force needed to maintain an empire this large and threatened by rebels. Whoa, sounds kinda like Star Wars if the storm troopers weren’t just clones, but also genetically and mechanically enhanced superior beings. That’s where I’ll stop comparing this book to Star Wars, I promise.
The story is told from Prince Khemri’s point of view. He is ready to leave his home planet, having finished his training and surgeries and implants and all that good stuff. His vision of his life after leaving the sanctity of his home is based on stories he has read since he was a boy about a fictional prince who had grand adventures in space. Khemri has no idea that the world of the princes is full of political intrigue, assassination attempts, and the constant grind of being under the boot of higher-level princes and the emperor. Khemri, with the help of Master Haddad, his chief assassin and spy (sort of like a really amazing ninja who’s got your back), he barely makes it to the safety of a nearby planet with a Navy base. He unwillingly joins the Navy and begins his military career.
Princes have always been given great privileges and prestige, but they are asked to do horrendous things once they reach those upper levels of command. I should say if they reach upper levels of command because princes spend a great deal of their time trying to kill each other off. Less competition for those top spots. When Khemri is hand-picked by the priests of the emperor for a special assignment, he jumps at the chance, even when the opportunity requires that he leave behind all the enhancements he has become so dependent on.
Khemri is dumped into a remote star system and given the task of infiltrating a planet full of people who have had little to nothing to do with the Empire for a long time. Right after he arrives, he finds the remains of a battle and one survivor of an attack on these people by another Prince and her army. Here is where the book starts to get predictable. Of course he falls in love with a simple human, of course he learns that these people are real and sees the importance of families and human connections, of course he has to go back to being a normal prince after betraying the people who have taken him in. None of these things are original. But there was just enough originality to keep me going, especially with the amazing universe Nix creates.
The story is all told in first-person and the problem with that is when you’re telling your own story and you’re the hero of that story, there is the danger of coming across as a braggart or a jerk. Nix makes a huge jerk out of Khemri from the get-go, but then it got fun to be in there with his thoughts while he navigates each scenario he gets tossed into or scrambles out of. How Khemri makes his decisions and works his way through the echelons of the princely system was fascinating.
There’s probably not a ton of you lovely readers who are dying to get your hands on some great science fiction, but regardless, I can recommend this one. It’s marketed as a young adult novel, but I found enough adult content to consider it at the upper end of my threshold. The story was fast-paced and exciting and I forgave a lot of the faults for rating high on the coolness factor. Not too bad of an endorsement, I don’t think. It’s safe to say that Nix can write science fiction well.