Author: Garth Nix
Publication Date: 5/15/12
Publisher: Harper Teen
Blurb: You'd think being a Prince in a vast intergalactic empire would be about as good as it gets. Particularly when Princes are faster, smarter, and stronger than normal humans. Not to mention being mostly immortal.
But it isn't as great as it sounds. Princes need to be hard to kill - as Khemri learns the minute he becomes one - for they are always in danger. Their greatest threat? Other Princes. Every Prince wants to become Emperor, and the surest way to do so is to kill, dishonor, or sideline any potential competitor. There are rules, but as Khemri discovers, rules can be bent and even broken.
Soon Khemri is drawn into the hidden workings of the Empire and dispatched on a secret mission. In the ruins of space battle he meets a young woman called Raine, who challenges his view of the Empire, of Princes, and of himself.
But Khemri is a Prince, and even if he wanted to leave the Empire behind, there are forces that have very definite plans for his future. . .
A Confusion of Princes reminded me of a variety of "guy" space SF, both in book and movie form - Dune, Starship Troopers, Star Wars, Ender's Game, Star Trek. Let me clarify this statement a little further. Garth Nix's newest novel brought back the memories of the best parts of these books and movies, because I am certainly a fan of neither Orson Scott Card nor Robert A. Heinlein (or campiness, bigotry and misogyny).
What attracted me to all these stories and why reading A Confusion of Princes was such a positive experience for me, was, first and foremost, space travel and space military schools (these settings just never get old for some reason), then (mild) interplanetary politics and intrigue, and, finally, rich world-building (you know, the type where everything is described in long words and titles and you feel smarter just by learning what Mektek is or what the Aspect of the Emperor's Discerning Hand does).
A lot of male-written fantasy and SF is preoccupied with this idea of "the chosen one" and his journey to acquire power and his subsequent choice of how to use this power. A Confusion of Princes roughly follows the same plot trajectory, so in terms of plot I can't say Nix invents anything mind-blowing or original here. But like with Dune, for example, I found myself utterly fascinated by the world in which Nix set his novel. I just love the idea of the universe run by a mysterious and almost omnipresent Emperor who picks, chooses and grooms millions of Princes so that they are prepared to governs His Empire. Khemri is one of the Princes. He is removed from the lowly regular population, he is an enhanced being in possession of psychic powers, vast knowledge, physical prowess and an opportunity to be reincarnated over and over again. His primary occupation is to lead and to fight for power. Khemri's view on his destiny changes, however, when he is forced to get a taste of regular, unprivileged life...
Even though I found this story very readable and interesting, I'd say that, structurally, I am not sure it is as good as it could have been. I don't know if Nix struggled with finishing this story, my guess is he did and he probably got stuck somewhere in the middle of the book, because that's where A Confusion of Princes sort of shifts gears, and the transition from Khemri-the Prince to Khem-gets-a-taste-of-normal-life is not very smooth or fully believable (while reading this novel I momentarily experienced a Blood Red Road deja vu, that book also changed course half-way). The second part is not developed enough, IMO, which includes not only Khem's too quick ideological transformation, but also the romance which has a very distinct whiff of insta... If anyone had asked me how to improve this novel, I'd have said - cut the princely experiences shorter and make ordinary experiences longer and more meaningful.
Still, like with Blood Red Road, I mostly was able to overlook this weakness and fully immerse myself in the book.
Now, to the most unpleasant part of my review.
Here is a series of A Confusion of Princes covers that I really, really like. Notice the progression, from UK to US, with the face of the hero becoming smaller and smaller, and even when it is large enough to see the features, it is still partially obscured?
Here it goes:
This is how Khemri speaks of his own appearance: "There were five female and three male Princes, and we all looked quite different. There was a lot of variation in skin, hair, and eye color, ranging from the darkest black, dark-haired, ebony eyes of Prince Aliadh to the orange-tinted skin and yellow eyes of Prince Fyrmis, who as was not unusual for some planets, had no hair at all. My own brown skin and black eyes were pretty much in the middle of the pack. My hair at that time was long and tied back in a queue, though later when I became more aware of Imperial fashions, which primarily consisted of the aping of old Earth customs, I had it shaved save for a strip in the middle, a hairstyle called a mohuck for reason that had not survived the march of history" (p. 65-66, ARC).
What do you think, dear readers, am I being paranoid? Or am I onto something?