This review is part of my awesome MARCH FANTASY MONTH project with the lovely Lili of Lili's Reflections. Click here to see Lili's review of The False Prince and follow both of us so you don't miss any of the fantasy madness!
Review: The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen
Rating: One of the best middle grade fantasies I've read in years, with possibly my favorite fantasy narrator EVER. Good for fans of thieves, trickery, false identities, and nefarious plotting.
In a discontent kingdom, civil war is brewing. To unify the divided people, Conner, a nobleman of the court, devises a cunning plan to find an impersonator of the king's long-lost son and install him as a puppet prince. Four orphans are recruited to compete for the role, including a defiant boy named Sage. Sage knows that Conner's motives are more than questionable, yet his life balances on a sword's point -- he must be chosen to play the prince or he will certainly be killed. But Sage's rivals have their own agendas as well.
As Sage moves from a rundown orphanage to Conner's sumptuous palace, layer upon layer of treachery and deceit unfold, until finally, a truth is revealed that, in the end, may very well prove more dangerous than all of the lies taken together.
An extraordinary adventure filled with danger and action, lies and deadly truths that will have readers clinging to the edge of their seats.
The cover: I love illustrated covers, especially for middle grade. Not only is the shattered crown a good symbol for what's going on politically in the book, but it actually bears some relevance to the plot. And I like how symbolic of a cover it is, as in it relies on a symbol superimposed on a simple background. It's arresting and graphic and I just plain love the colors.
The story: I'M OBSESSED WITH THIS BOOK. I'm hit or miss with middle grade; unlike YA, I feel like mentally I've aged out of it (okay, truth: the reason MGs don't always work for me is because I'm always slightly bored if there's no romance present). But this? I defy you to be bored in this book. The plot thickens by the second, and things get real and there are high stakes and interesting worldbuilding. But lets face it. The main attraction here is Sage.
I. Love. Sage. What a fabulous narrator. This kid is trouble with a capital T. He's got a smart mouth, big cojones, and a devilish sense of humor. He's always ten steps ahead of everybody, lying and tricking his way through life. I could not get enough of this guy. He's so cool. And so amusing (to me) and frustrating (to basically every single character in the book). I just loved watching him drive everybody around him positively insane. Even when I knew he was possibly lying to me, the reader, I was just like, "Oh Sage. You rascally scamp, you." His big mouth and brazen attitude can get him into trouble, but I loved watching him get into trouble. I loved watching him wriggle out of it. And I loved watching the few times he failed, because it always revealed a real depth of character that Sage was trying so hard to hide.
This kid is like Aladdin: a thief who's secretly a diamond in the rough, if Aladdin were snarky, brutal, and drop dead hilarious. Underneath everything, he's deeply loyal and doesn't like seeing the weak be bullied. And most of all, he's stubborn. He refuses to bend to anyone else's will but his own, sometimes to his detriment.
Seriously, I don't know how Nielsen managed to conjure up this character inside her. He's just brilliant.
The other characters: None are as strong as Sage, but then again, who is? What I love about the whole cast of characters is that you don't know who to trust. Characters who seem one dimensional at the start reveal different layers and motivations and strengths. I felt like Sage's friendship-type-thing with Imogen kind of came out of nowhere, but it's middle grade type of romance, so I bought it. I looooooved watching the fluctuating dynamics between the competing boys and Conner. Speaking of Conner... man. What an evil little snake. There is a horrible ruthlessness to his exceptionally treasonous plan and the brutal world he creates for the boys at Farthenwood. He forces them into situation where only one of them will survive, and death is a constant threat on the horizon. Watching Sage and Conner battle for power was just... I don't even have words. I loved every second of it. Ooh, and Mott. I love Mott.
The plot: Amazing. Straight up amazing. There is a pretty huge plot-twist that almost all readers will see coming a hundred miles away, but I almost enjoyed the fact that I guessed it early. It adds a layer of double, triple, quadruple meaning to everything. You never quite know who's ahead in the battle to become the false prince, whether Sage will prevail over Conner, whether the country will dissolve into civil war. Things are tense, and I LOVE tense. And then there are all the plot twists you DON'T see coming, because Sage is always so far ahead of you being awesome and clever and it is so, so wrong how much I'm in love with a fictional fifteen-year-old.
There is a huge chunk of exposition at a very crucial point in the novel that is slightly inelegant, but since the exposition is fascinating, it works.
Not only is this the sort of book that fills me with happiness because of how much I would have loved it as a middle grader, but it makes me happy because of how much I love it now. The very second I finished this book I bought the sequel. With no hesitation. While reading I would sometimes have to put the book down and go "Ohmygodohmygodohmygod" or squeal or stare into space, awed and slack-jawed.
The False Prince would also be good for people who are wary of high fantasy. The world is solid, but not overly complicated, and shouldn't overwhelm fantasy newbies. As for those high fantasy overs out there, what are you waiting for? Read this!