Thursday, June 21, 2012

Review: A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix

Lots of princes in literature lately, right?  The False Prince, A Confusion of Princes, A Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom ... OK, maybe that's it, but since I keep getting these titles confused with each other, it feels like a lot of princes.  And all of them are having their princely authority challenged in one way or another!

But before I talk about A Confusion of Princes, by Garth Nix, I do have to point out one sad thing: whitewashing.  Here's how the main character, Khemri, describes himself in relation to his fellow Princes:

"There was a lot of variation in skin, hair, and eye color, ranging from the darkest black skin, dark hair, and purple 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" (65-66).

And you can see how he looks on the cover. Admittedly, his head is small, and Book Smugglers felt that they couldn't definitely cry whitewashing.  But I put my thumb next to the small man on the cover and his face is definitely the same color as my thumb, and my thumb is pretty white.  There are also pictures of the UK and AU covers on Garth Nix's website, and they all appear to feature the same white guy. 

The Readventurer has a theory about the particular kind of white-washing going on here, so if you care about this issue I encourage you to check out what she said and then email the publisher.  I sent a sad note to the publicity person for Harper (found here).  Now I will try to put that aside as I review the text of the novel. 

::The Story

A Confusion of Princes, by Garth Nix, is a sci-fi coming-of-age story.  The main character, Khemri, is a "Prince," which in this futuristic intergallactic empire means a person (male or female) who is taken from his or her parents at a young age and augmented with advanced technology to serve the empire.  Raised in a temple and taught that he is destined for greatness, Khemri eagerly looks forward to his "ascension," when he will become a full-fledged Prince.  He assumes he will then get a sweet ship and proceed to roam the galaxy swashbuckling his way to fame and fortune.

But as soon as he ascends and is assigned a Master of Assassins (sort of a bodyguard/valet), Khemri learns that competition between the Princes is cutthroat.  Literally.  Khemri could be assassinated or challenged to a deadly duel at any time.  For protection, most princes join some kind of group.  Khemri joins the Navy.  But he's not happy about it. 

::The Characters

Calling the characters in this book "Princes" works particularly well, because they seem to operate according to a rigid, hierarchical system that is also totally messed up.  Like the code of chivalry!  Some of them fetishize "ancient Earth" status symbols, like dueling pistols or marble interiors.  And they consider the humans they rule vastly inferior and basically disposable.

They sound despicable, and they are, but we learn over the course of the novel that through their upbringing and augmentation they are all but programmed to seek power.  They also don't form any emotional ties to others, so they literally can't compute the value of people and relationships.

What makes Khemri a different kind of prince?
I hope I'm not giving too much away by saying that Khemri eventually has some experiences that shape him into a different kind of Prince.  But he starts out like all the others--or possibly worse than many, since he's stupidly arrogant and a definite smart aleck.  Since he's narrating the story, we know he must be special, but he sure doesn't seem like it.  He seems like an ass.

Nix does a masterful job of setting Khemri up to distinguish himself in believable ways so he doesn't go from smart ass to thoughtful hero too quickly.  For example, Khemri is such a jerk at the Naval Academy that he gets assigned almost endless punishment details.  But these details force him to practice monotonous skills over and over.  And then it's those very skills that allow him to react in a time of crisis.

Eventually, Khemri's actions are driven by more than mere training, and this is where the novel seems weak.  When Khemri interacts with real humans, he supposedly forms attachments that awaken qualities like selflessness and humility.  But I just wasn't feeling the love.  I think that's because Kehmri's love interest was a nice girl and all, but basically kind of boring.  She felt more like a symbol for a woman's touch than a fully developed character.

This weakness also made it hard for me to accept Khemri's decision at the end if the novel.  Spoiler Alert!  Scroll over to read my rant.

OK, so I know that he's been through a lot in two years, but I just find it really hard to believe that he's ready to hang up his hat (or space helmet) at age 20.  How long is he going to be satisfied chilling at home with the wife and the kid?  I get that he needs a break and that he doesn't want to be part of the vast Imperial machine.  I even respect the fact that he knows he can't change the system by immersing himself in it.  But his decision to just check out?  I know he's validating his humanity, but it would have been easier for me to believe that he zoomed off to fight injustice on the small scale in parts unknown. In a way, I was more moved by the idea that he might have to give up Raine than the idea that he was going to live with her forever. 

::Read it?

Phew!  So despite my rant, I really liked this book.  The plotting and world-building are brilliant--I was never bored.  And even though the "Tek" is spiffy, I like that it occasionally just doesn't work, that the spacecraft can take 20 hours to get ready to launch, and that Khemri still sometimes throws up or has to fill his entire cockpit with breathable goo just to survive the transit through space.  These gritty details make Khemri's ordeal seem truly difficult.  And I like to read about other people doing hard stuff while I lie on the beach with a book.

I would recommend this book to fans of Living Hell by Catherine Jinx. And of course I would recommend that teens who like this title go on to read Ender's Game or The Warrior's Apprentice.

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