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.
-cover and description courtesy of goodreads.
Atmospheric Analysis: The US cover of A Confusion of Princes is colorful and accurately communicates the wacky sci-fi nature of the book. However, I’m not sure that the little prince at the center of the whirling vortex is a great depiction of Khem (a passage seems to suggest that he’s brown-skinned; in the illustration he looks vaguely beige), and the slightly corny nature of both the illustrated prince and the title itself (which is terrifically accurate–just a bit silly) might scare off adult readers who would probably really enjoy this book.
The UK cover more successfully courts a cross-generational audience, but remains pretty goofy (Khem remains decidedly beige).
Planetary Class: Space opera! Delicious, weird, and epic space opera at that.
Mohs Rating: Mr. Nix gives us an entire world of phlebotinum–largely powered by mektek (mechanical technology), bitek (biological technology) and psitek (psychic technology). 2 on the Mohs scale.
Viability Rating: It’s really, really difficult to talk about “viability” in a novel like A Confusion of Princes, because Garth Nix embraces the oddity of his universe whole-heartedly. We get a little handwavium and virii rewriting DNA, but not a lot of background (like, for example, how the bizarre Prince system came to be). What’s here is terrifically consistent, though. I believed in the world, even though Nix didn’t always give us ample reason to.
Xenolinguistical Assessment: This is a memoir, essentially, told in Khemri’s own real, down-to-earth, and dryly humorous voice. It’s appropriately adolescent without ever feeling tiresome or overly talky.
Expanded Report: Like a lot of people my age, I dig anime. Girly anime, mostly–Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura. My affinity for odd Japanese children’s series has often left me craving a written equivalent. Manga are great and all, but I’m a book girl at heart, and have never really found anything in American YA that satisfies in quite the way that an episode of my favorite shojo might. Magical and often surreal, these shows take the typical universal experience of growing up and wrap them in vivid science fiction or fantasy trappings. But because the narratives are created outside the American cultural sphere, they have a fantastic freshness to them. They feel strange, unexpected–they make your brain work to uncover the mystery of the world even as you follow the main character’s narrative. For example, I recently began watching Revolutionary Girl: Utena, and became immersed in the strange setting (an isolated school with a floating castle out in the woods) and central plot (a student council fight duels and the victor gets to own a girl) as much as I was entertained by the spunky main character.
So I was excited when I read the blurb for Garth Nix’s A Confusion of Princes. I got a strong whiff of “anime story!” from the declaration that “being a Prince in a vast intergalactic Empire isn’t as great as it sounds. Princes may be nearly superhuman, but they are always in danger.” And really, this novel exceeded my expectations. It’s exactly what I’ve been hoping for: inventive as any anime, with strong science fictional worldbuilding, and the distinctive characters that make Western YA novels so lively.
Before you dive in to A Confusion of Princes, you should know that this is an incredibly dense, strange book, at least at first. Within the first hundred pages, we’re introduced to Prince Khemri, who was stolen from his parents (who were either killed, or mind-wiped) in order to become an intergalactic Prince. He spent the first decade in some sort of biogoop, where he had three types of “tek” implanted into him–mektek, bitek, and psitek. These terms are dropped in without explanation, and it took me most of the novel to work them out from context clues. Super strong, with psychic abilities and access to the knowledge of the Imperial Mind, Khem was raised alone with virtual tutors. But at last he’s set free, given a dozen servants, and allowed to join Princely society–where he is, in short order, killed.
(That’s not a spoiler, by the way. We’re told in the first sentence that this is the story of Khem’s first three deaths.)
This is truly challenging science fiction. Khem is not human, least of all in his view of the world. Nix doesn’t do much hand-holding here. We’re plunged into this new, strange universe in a manner more common of adult sci-fi. It’s absolutely fascinating, and I was so excited to discover the mysteries underlying his world that I just kept reading, finishing the novel in one sitting.
It wasn’t until I was about a third of the way through that I realized that aside from Khem–strongly voiced, wryly humorous, absolutely honest–there weren’t really any characters in this book, especially not at first. But I really almost didn’t notice. We’re swept along from one intriguing science fictional situation to the next and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be so preoccupied by figuring it out that you won’t really miss people.
And then Nix pulls the rug out from under us at roughly the halfway point, when Khem meets Raine and begins to slowly take on the mantle of humanity. It’s a fascinating process, and a fascinating move in a novel such as this one. In some ways, this marks a transformation into a more typical upper-YA narrative. But Khem’s journey continues through lush environs and at a sprightly pace–and by the time he started to feel for Raine, I’d begun to feel for both of them. Sure, Nix sacrifices a little bit of the novel’s strangeness, but he exchanges it for tenderness. It works, and works well.
I really adored this book, and would imagine that it would have broad cross-over appeal–not to middle grade audiences like some of Nix’s books, but rather to adult science fiction fans. They’re likely to appreciate the rich, strange world here, even as their younger brothers and sisters enjoy the coming-of-age narrative at its core. In that way, it’s a lot like anime–and precisely what I’ve been waiting for.