Garth Nix,
A Confusion of Princes
(HarperCollins, 2012)

I read A Confusion of Princes in one gulp on a four-hour plane ride. Garth Nix's latest is an exciting plunge into a far-future world dominated by new technologies: bitek (biological technology, including enhanced organs and specially designed animals), mektek (mechanical technology) and psitek (psychic technology). (I found myself wondering what the main character would think of the Boeing 767 I was riding in and could almost see him sneering at clunky, outdated mektek.) In this well-realized intergalactic world, there's a strict hierarchy: the ruling Imperial Mind and the many princes that have been chosen at birth, augmented to be superhuman and trained to one day replace the current emperor. The problem? Millions of princes. One emperor.

The opening line is delicious: "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." The narrator and protagonist Khemri starts off as a spoiled boy who has only known mind-controlled servants and the priests who have served and educated him to his proper role in the Empire. That changes when he attains his majority, receives his assigned Master of Assassins, and is promptly almost assassinated himself. Khemri, cool and self-confident to the point of absolute arrogance, is on track for a head-on collision with reality.

From navigating princely politicking, to discovering the real nature of the Imperial Mind, to discovering his own humanity, Khemri's coming of age makes for compelling reading of the space opera kind. Our ancient hero myths feature heroes who transcend their mortal limits; Nix's hero has to find a way back to his humanity.

It's a ripsnorting adventure and a fast read, but it leaves me a little cold. A Confusion of Princes is short on likable characters. For most of the book, Khemri is the only major character (his Master of Assassins Haddad is interesting, but almost always off-scene), and while his retrospective account of his younger self is wry and a little pointed, he still doesn't come off as altogether likable. Also, the catalyst for his personal transformation centers around a character who gets weirdly little screen time. Khemri's relationship with Raine is one of the flattest ones I've ever come across; it's more plot device than romance, and it weakens everything that follows.

Still, there's plenty of action, intelligence and world-building to keep A Confusion of Princes hurtling towards the finish. As with Sabriel, Garth Nix has created a world that I'd be happy to return to.

book review by
Jennifer Mo

23 March 2013

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