Title: A Confusion of Princes

Author: Garth Nix

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult

Publisher: HarperCollins (US) / HarperCollins Children’s Books (UK)
Publication date: May 2012
Hardcover: 337 pages

You’d think being a privileged Prince in a vast intergalactic Empire would be about as good as it gets. But it isn’t as great as it sounds. For one thing, Princes are always in danger. Their greatest threat? Other Princes. Khemri discovers that the moment he is proclaimed a Prince.

He also discovers mysteries within the hidden workings of the Empire. Dispatched on a secret mission, Khemri comes across the ruins of a space battle. In the midst of it all he meets a young woman named Raine, who will challenge his view of the Empire, of Princes, and of himself.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone

How did we get this book: We both bought our copies

Why did we read this book: It’s a standalone Science Fiction space adventure from Garth Nix (who Thea loves) which sounded liked something we would both enjoy. Seriously, we have been salivating for this title for ages.

REVIEW

Ana’s Take:

A Confusion of Princes is a Sci-fi novel complete with space travel, adventurous hijinks, a dash of romance and an attempt (emphasis on the attempt) at exploration of what it means to be human.

Khemri is an enhanced human being, a Prince of the Empire, expected to do great things once he leaves the secluded temple he grew up at. It is only when he does so that he realises the truth: there are ten million princes all over the Empire and all of them compete against each other to death (although most princes are allowed to be reborn). More than that though and to Khemri’s dismay, he can’t really do everything and anything he wants as he expected – there is a very strict hierarchy of princes, rules he must follow, not to mention the complete obedience owed to the Imperial Mind – a supposedly omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent being. This story is Khemri’s own story – narrated by him – of how he has died and been reborn three times and describing his transformation from a Prince of the Empire into a full human being.

I am slightly conflicted about A Confusion of Princes: I absolutely loved parts of it but felt that ultimately the book fell short of its full potential.

First of all, I loved the narrative voice. Khemri’s voice is sarcastic, funny, self-aware and it was just what made the book such a pleasure to read. As he begins his life as a Prince he is expected to be absolutely loyal to the Empire and to never question anything. He is also designed to fully believe he is the best thing the galaxy has ever seen (his own words). As such and as the book opens, Khemri is arrogant, self-serving, believing regular humans to be beneath him and worthy of contempt. plus, complete unquestioning of everything that he has ever been told. Slowly but surely, he becomes increasingly aware of his and the Empire’s shortfalls. The fact that Khemri is such a complete douchebag is probably part of what I liked the most about the book because it was believable and fitting into the society where he grew up. The main arc – his transformation – is incredibly fun to read because of the world-building (although some parts of that were slightly boring and perhaps too detailed) and the scrapes he gets into. That said, I am not sure I completely bought this transformation but more on that later on.

Another thing that I loved about A Confusion of Princes is its lack of exposition and info-dump. From the start, the reader is dropped into this fascinating futuristic world, expected to fully understand it as we go along and I really appreciated the lack of hand-holding and pandering. I also loved the diversity of gender (princes can be either male or female – although I would have appreciated a gender neutral title; loads of female characters in positions of power), race and sexual orientation (most princes seem to be bisexual) representation. These are presented without making an issue out of it and it’s all the more appreciated considering this is a YA novel.

That said, although I loved the idea of Khemri’s arc being an exploration of what it means to be human at its core, I felt that this very exploration was short-changed by occurring far too fast. It doesn’t take much for Khemri to question his entire life, it doesn’t take long for him to change. I never quite bought his transformation because it was very sudden (and brought forth by an insta-love connection with a human girl). In truth, we were told rather than shown this transformation and as such I felt his change was perfunctory and superficial rather than really profound and affecting. Seriously, there is so much potential to this story but at lot of it was merely glanced over. There is enough material here for at least a trilogy.

Ultimately, although I felt A Confusion of Princes could have been soooooo much better, I still enjoyed reading it a lot and thoroughly recommend it.

Thea’s Take:

At last! A non-divisive review from la casa de Smugglers! I wholeheartedly agree with everything that Ana has said.

A Confusion of Princes is a delightful book, and I truly enjoyed many aspects of the novel – not the least Prince Khemri (later just “Khem”)’s narrative. I love the idea of this intergalactic empire, its myriad biologically engineered Princes (of both genders!), and the hijinks that Khemri gets tangled into as he transitions from Prince to understanding the value of life and humanity. On the other hand, while fun, A Confusion of Princes sort of squanders much of its promise, especially in later chapters as Khem’s transition from self-absorbed Prince to in loooooove with a human girl feels predictable and forced.

But on to the good: the most appealing thing about A Confusion of Princes is the narration of Khemri and his blithely superior attitude. To be fair, Prince Khemri *is* an imperial Prince and thus has been selected for his genetic compatibility and has been trained since youth to be a superior creature – but it’s pretty funny to read, especially when all of Khemri’s biological and cybernetic type of advantages are stripped away. On that note, the actual universe, in which Princes are snatched from parents as children and whisked away to undergo modifications and training, and groomed to become candidates for Imperial Greatness, is fascinating. I love the idea of this cutthroat, competitive array of Princes fighting for superiority and status across the universe – oh, and did I mention that they also have the ability to be reborn? Should the all-seeing “Imperial Mind” find them worthy of revival, these Princes can die multiple times and be reborn into cloned adult human bodies. I also love that “Prince” is not a gender-specific term, and that females are Princes, too.

Praises said – there are also some downsides. First, the narrator and hero of our piece, Prince Khemri, is a fantastic voice, but I could not for the life of me stop comparing him to Miles Vorkosigan. And if you, like me, are a Vorkosigan fan, you know that NO ONE can compare to the charming, clever, hilarious Miles. The other, more significant problems were with the tendency to skip over the good stuff. That is, there’s the odd sense that things are truncated and skipped over completely. The things that I so desperately wanted to see unfold were glossed over with a few sentences (e.g. Khem’s first four simulations in his human – non Prince enhanced – body). And then of course there’s the InstaLove of Doom. I didn’t quite buy into the immediate attraction and relationship between Khem and Raine (and on a broader level, I don’t know how I feel about the tried trope of powerful dude falls in love with human girl who teaches him the value of life and love, blah blah blah. Not my favorite trope.). The most frustrating thing about A Confusion of Princes, however, is this feeling of opportunity squandered. This is a book with a ton of potential and some soaring high points, but it never really manages to deliver on that promise.

That said, despite these misgivings, I did truly enjoy A Confusion of Princes and certainly recommend it – but if you’ve read this and want something with a littler more oomph, I’d point you to Lois McMaster Bujold and the ineffable Miles Vorkosigan.

On the covers:

We’ve been discussing these covers since we started reading the book. We assume that the man on the cover depicts the main character who is described thusly in the book:

His skin was lighter than my own and more yellow than brown

My own brown skin and black eyes

She had brown skin like mine

We’ve been pondering if these covers are whitewashed but the fact is…we can’t really tell can we? The UK one could be any kind of guy given the blue shadowy hue all over the cover and we can barely see the model in the US cover.

Odds are this is a caucasian model instead of being brown-skinned, but we don’t think we can cry whitewashing because we can’t really see the model. We do think we can say that this is a shame because this would have been a great opportunity to use a POC model…but instead we’ve got is this kind of ambivalent, maybe-he-is-maybe-he-isn’t cover.

Notable Quotes/ Parts:

I HAVE DIED THREE times, and three times been reborn, though I am not yet twenty in the old Earth years by which it is still the fashion to measure time.

This is the story of my three deaths, and my life between.

My name is Khemri, though this is not the name my parents gave me. I do not know who my parents are, and never will, for I was taken from them as a baby. This is one of the secrets the Empire keeps well. No Prince may ever know his or her parents, or the world of their birth. Even trying to find out is forbidden, which just about sums up the paradox of being a Prince. We have vast power and seemingly limitless authority, except when we try to exercise that power or authority beyond the bounds that have been set for us.

It’s still about a million times better than being an ordinary Imperial subject, mind you. It just isn’t everything that I thought it was going to be when I was a child, a Prince candidate being carefully raised in considerable ignorance in my remote temple. So I’m one of the ten million Princes who rule the Empire, the largest political entity in recorded history or current knowledge. The Empire extends across a vast swath of the galaxy, encompassing more than seventeen million systems, tens of millions of inhabited worlds, and trillions of sentient subjects, most of them humans of old Earth stock.

It is Imperial policy that all these mostly planet-bound yokel types know as little as possible about the apparently godlike beings who rule them. Even our enemies—the alien Sad-Eyes, the enigmatic Deaders, and the Naknuk rebels—know more of us than our own people.

The ordinary folk think we’re immortal. Which is natural enough when they typically have something like their grandfather’s grandfather’s grandmother’s nice commemorative stereosculpture of a good-looking young Prince on the family mantelpiece and then they see the same Prince handing out Grower of the Month awards at the annual harvest festival or whatever.

It would be the same Prince too, because while we’re not actually immortal, if we get killed we do mostly get reborn into an identical adult body. It’s a technical difference, I guess.

Rating:

Ana: 6 – Good, leaning towards 7

Thea: 6 – Good, leaning towards a 7

Reading Next: To be decided!

Buy the Book:

Ebook available for kindle US, kindle UK, google, nook, kobo and sony

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17 Responses to Joint Review: A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix

  1. Phoebe says:

    Oh oh, I’ve been so excited to read both of your reviews! I think I was a bit more convinced by the story’s turn in the second half, but honestly I loved the world and our hero so much that I probably would have followed Khemri anywhere.

    Agree that the cover is nebulously troubling. It’s not that it’s white washing, but minimizing a character’s race/appearance when YA generally has such a propensity for photographic covers of heroes is kinda just as bad.

  2. Kiwigirl says:

    ooooohhh I love Garth Nix, I remember reading Shade’s Children way back when I was kid and loving it and then the Abhorsen books later. I am putting this at the top of my ‘to read’ list. Thanks for the review.

  3. hapax says:

    Wow, I loved this so much more than y’all — it would have received an 8 or a 9 on your scale. Of course, I was so tearfully glad to FINALLY get some teen science fiction this year (along with OBSIDIAN BLADE, your review of which I agree with wholeheartedly) that wasn’t all about the bleak dystopias, and made the future sound like some place worth living to see.

    I didn’t have the slightest problem with Khem’s transformation. I didn’t think the relationship was as much “insta-love” as “insta-like”; which was far more explosive to Khem’s world view. After all, one can “love” one’s pets, but to *like* one, to see one as a being of equal worth to oneself?

    And I don’t even see this as the most important step in turning Khem into a Real Boy. *That* crucial role was played by his relationship with

    [sort of spoiler]

    another woman, (although I understand why you left her out of your review).

  4. Lindsay says:

    Reading the review puts this book into a mental list called “maybe if I see it at the library”, but it also gave me a big smile and a desire to wander over to my shelves to pick up a well-thumbed Vorkosigan volume. :wink: And that’s always a good thing.

  5. Liz says:

    This has been on my list for a while, it’s nice to see your take on it. Although it’s always bad when something gets compared to Miles Vorkosigan, because no one will ever be able to measure up to Miles. Or any of the Vorkosigans, really — it’s a whole family of awesomesauce.

  6. hapax says:

    Actually, thinking it over, Khemri is *much* more comparable to Ivan Vorpatril!

  7. Linda W says:

    I’m reading this book right now (and also wondered if the cover was whitewashed). Having LOVED Sabriel by Nix, at first I was taken aback by the voice. This is very different from that series. But I am enjoying it. And yes, I agree about the summarizing aspect of Khemri’s simulations. I was thrown by that at first and actually stopped reading the book for a time. But I never found the book to be dull.

  8. I found the book compulsive reading, but also found the “love of a good woman” cure a bit pat and underexplored. But my biggest problem is that Khemri remains selfish to the end. His final decisions are all about what’s good for Khemri, and not for the billions of mind-controlled slaves in the Empire. I felt let down.

  9. Geeky hijinks, eh? This sounds like good fun. I’ve only read one of Nix’s books, but thoroughly enjoyed it, and I do have another one (this one?) on my review shelf.

    Good point about the cover model, too. Not to be horribly cynical, but I wonder if audience prejudice is one of the reasons that UK/Australian covers tend not to feature people on them at all.

  10. Ana says:

    Thanks for all the comments!

    @Andrea K Host – You know, this a very good point and something I have been considering ever since I read the book. Basically I am conflicted about the ending. I completely agree with you and about the fact that he remains selfish till the end. Part of me loves this ending because at least some part of him is still the original character as he started – meaning that he hasn’t completely redeemed himself or became a full on better human. I think that if had done some ultra self-sacrificing, I would have had even bigger problems believing it. That said, yes…there is little to no exploration about the crappy lives that humans lead in the Empire especially the ones mind-controlled by the Princes. More than being disappointed by this character’s lack of action about it, I was more so about the lack of any deeper exploration about it in the book at all. I wish I could have written about this in the review but I wasn’t as clear then about what made uncomfortable about the ending as I am now.

    In any case, that’s one of the reasons why I think this deserved to be a trilogy, there is so much more that could have been explored you know?

  11. Yes – it’s not that it’s a requirement that every book’s protagonist be a self-sacrificing hero who’ll put himself into an uncomfortable situation for the good of all.

    But it would have been nice if he’d at least considered it.

    Given that the Imperial Mind is constantly presented as all-powerful, to at least have spared a sentence to “I could do so much good…” before making decisions which are (at least in the short term, before the next cycle is over) all to his benefit. To have thought about it. [The short-term aspect of his twenty years of time is also a bit of a problem, especially given the aspect of there being "only five" which might make him and his family of interest to the Empire in the future.]

    It’s still an interesting book, but I agree that there’s a little too much going on and three books may have covered it better. [But then, if it went the same way, again such a deflating ending.]

  12. Chachic says:

    I just started reading this one. Sorry to hear that it didn’t live up to both of your expectations! I’m still hoping that I’ll enjoy reading it. :mrgreen: Also Thea, I need to read more Miles Vorkosigan novels.

  13. [...] Reviews: The Book Smugglers; Tor; io9. Share and Enjoy: [...]

  14. [...] thrilling alien battles to crucial character development. The Book Smugglers’s Ana is right when she notes that “we were told rather than shown this transformation and as such I felt his change was [...]

  15. InTheBiz says:

    Just to clarify, the model in this, while not a POC has Asian heritage, this may go someway to explain the reason why he is white but with not-white features

  16. [...] A Confusion of Princes has been compared to a lot of past science fiction that I’m woefully behind on reading for myself, so I’ve linked extra reviews to give you better coverage of that aspect of the book. Enjoy! Check out School Library Journal, Tor, io9, and The Book Smugglers. [...]

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