Jennifer A. Nielsen is no stranger to epic plots and lovable anti-heroes.
For instance, her “Underworld Chronicles” series features such a formula. The first book in the series, “Elliot and the Goblin War”, charmed readers and reviewers alike as it told the adventures if Elliot Penster, a boy who finds himself in the middle of a war between Goblins and Brownies. Kirkus called “Elliot and the Goblin War” a “quickly addictive page-turner”, and it spawned two equally liked sequels, “Elliot and the Pixie Plot” and :Elliot and the Last Underworld War”.
With “The False Prince”, published by Scholastic, Nielsen is taking that tried and tested formula and setting it in a much darker and deceptive world — a definite departure from the world the “Underworld Chronicles” introduced to readers. Will going dark work in Nielsen’s favor? Or would it have been better off if she had stuck to her roots?
“The False Prince” follows the young orphan Sage as he finds himself drawn into a plot that intends to install an impostor on the vacated throne of the kingdom of Carthya. Along with two other orphans — Roden and Tobias — Sage is made to live in the residence of the nobleman Conner, who molds them to look and act like Jaron, Carthya’s lost prince.
While Conner maintains that all his machinations are intended to stop Carthya from plunging into civil war, Sage believes otherwise. But even as he tries to unravel Conner’s convoluted plots, he has to contend with Tobias and Roden, who are both desperate enought for a better life that they both are willing to lie, cheat, and maybe even kill, just to be the orphan that Conner installs on the throne.
As the day of their revelation draws near, Sage must use all of his wit and skill to outmaneuver not only his competitors, but Conner himself. Because as tempting as being a prince might be, the strings attached to that position may prove deadlier than anything in his previous life could be.
The themes and tropes that Nielsen explores in “The False Prince” aren’t exactly new to the seasoned fantasy reader. Political maneuvering, double-crosses, and untrustworthy allies are standard fare in epic fantasy, and older readers will readily recognize these in “The False Prince”.
What makes “The False Prince” such an entertaining read despite the twists and turns that older readers may find familiar is the fact that Nielsen has hit the jackpot with her characterization of Sage. Witty, wisecracking, and wonderfully fleshed-out, Sage is immediately engaging and intriguing to readers young and old.
That is why Nielsen’s decision to write the book through the perspective of Sage is such an inspired choice. Young readers will have no trouble identifying with Sage’s rebellious nature, while older readers will find him witty and charming, and perfectly capable of leading readers through the book’s 54 chapters.
While the book’s central mystery can be easily figured out by older readers or perceptive tweens, Nielsen throws in enough red herrings and misdirections so that readers still get a thrill of having their suspicions proven right in the book’s later chapters. She also does a great job of pulling together all the loose ends scattered throughout the book to come up with a climactic confrontation that satisfyingly answers any questions that readers may have.
And while Sage may take center stage, the book’s other characters aren’t any less interesting either. Both Tobias and Roden are hard to pin down, with Nielsen successfully obfuscating their true motives and intentions. Also of note are the servant girl Imogen and Princess Amarinda, two female characters who hold their own against the mostly male cast of characters.
Sage’s voice is so engrossing that it’s enough to overshadow a lot of the book’s shortcomings.
As a villain, Conner isn’t as complex a creation as Sage. Even as he maintains that what he is doing is for the good of Carthya, the way he is written makes it too obvious where his loyalties actually lie. If it weren’t for the verbal tussles he engages in with Sage, Conner would hardly be worth the reader’s attention.
It is also Sage’s engaging voice that distracts from the less than stellar world-building within the novel. Despite the world map that is prominently featured on the book’s first few pages, it’s hard to get a feel of the kind of world that Nielsen’s characters move in. The fact that most of the action happens within the four walls of a nobleman’s estate doesn’t help either.
Despite these faults, it’s hard not to look forward to the promise of more Sage in the sequel, “The Runaway King”. If he remains as engaging and as exciting as he is here in “The False Prince”, then there’s no doubt that Nielsen has a smashing success in her hands once more.