The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen
High-spirited orphan Sage, always a troublemaker at his orphanage, is sold to the noble Lord Conner, who is buying up orphans the right age who resemble Prince Jaron. Prince Jaron was lost four years ago, and presumed to have been killed by the pirates who took the ship he was on. Lord Conner’s plan is to train all four boys to impersonate the prince, and thus prevent the civil war that would otherwise break out when it’s discovered that the king, queen, and crown prince have all been poisoned. There’s a lot at stake, as it’s clear from the get-go that the boys who don’t get chosen won’t have any future at all. While Sage refuses, somewhat inexplicably, to buckle down to his studies, the other boys are doing their level best, including studious and sycophantic Tobias and the less educated but tough and street-smart Roden. Sage is too smart to want to be a pretend prince, forever doing Lord Conner’s bidding, but he’s walking a tightrope between making it clear that he won’t give in to Conner’s demands while co-operating just enough not to get booted out altogether. All too often, his open defiance gets him hard knocks from Conner’s toughs. He’s got two weeks to learn enough to stay in the contest, figure out what Lord Conner’s real motives are (surely not as virtuous as he claims), and find a way to get out of the whole situation alive, preferably saving the lives of the other boys as well. Sage is cagey about his history, even with the reader, and it’s clear he’s got secrets of his own. Having read reviews of this other places, I already knew the Big Secret. (Hint: why does Sage both refuse to pretend to be the prince forever if he’s chosen and tell Conner “I am your prince.”?) Theoretically, knowing this ahead of time could have spoiled the book for me, like already known whodunit in a mystery. Not so. There are still so many gaps in Sage’s story, past and future (and present, the wily kid) that I was sucked in. Ultimately, Sage has to decide if he should go for being a prince or not – and how to get there without Conner coming with him if he does. As I get tired of books leaving me hanging waiting for the next in the series, I was somewhat surprised to see that the catalog record for this says “Ascendance Trilogy Book 1”. Nielsen has been very considerate with her series making: while I definitely want to read more of Sage’s adventures, this is a nicely rounded story in its own right, without being awkwardly chopped off at the right length. The False Prince combines strong characters with fast and tricky plotting, similar to – dare I invoke the name? – Megan Whalen Turner’s the Queen’s Thief series. That series has similarly strong characters who hold on to their secrets to the end, combined with top-level politics with a small number of players, though the gods and magic don’t play a noticeable role in The False Prince. That means that despite it not being set in any place definitely on our earth and having a very similar feel to fantasy books, it doesn’t really count as fantasy. Still, highly entertaining and well worth reading.
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