A Confusion of Princes

 It sounds like an obscure collective noun: A Confusion of Princes, by Garth Nix. I thoroughly enjoyed this fun, plot-twisting sci-fi adventure. In an article for the latest issue of The Horn Book Magazine, fantasy writer T.A. Barron claims that the best fantasy has three essential qualities: depth of character, truth of place and richness of meaning. A Confusion of Princes can make a case for having all three.

Khemri is a Prince of the Empire, which means he is genetically altered to be faster and stronger than ordinary humans. He is also likely to be assassinated by other Princes who are competing for the role of Emperor. One of the best parts of the book is how Khemri grows from being a selfish, self-centered and arrogant teen into a compassionate and clever adult, with true depth of character. What teen hasn’t wanted to just get away from school and authority to do whatever you like? Khemri says at the beginning of the novel “I want to enjoy myself…Get a ship–you know, a corvette or maybe something smaller, of course with high automation, head out for some distant stars, see something beyond this moldy old temple, smoke a few Naknuk ships or the like….That’s not going to happen is it?”

No, it isn’t, primarily because Khemri’s Empire is not a safe place, even for a Prince with a Master of Assassins and various priests to see to his every need. The setting bounces between various planets, ships and academies, but the world  that is most fully fleshed out is one where Khemri ends up by accident–Kharalcha Four, a system with limited technology and no love for Princes. The descriptions of space ships, machines and various ‘teks’ or technologies get confusing at points, but Kharalcha Four is given many details that help the reader understand why Khemri feels at home there and decides to save these people, at any cost.

The third essential quality of good fantasy is richness of meaning. While an exciting plot, various narrow escapes and a light touch of romance are all present in this book, the heart of A Confusion of Princes is Khemri’s struggle to recover his humanity from the confusion of tek, special abilities and mind-conditioning he has had as a Prince. The question of what it means to be human and part of a family is the central idea of the novel. Readers will cheer for Khem as he makes up his mind about who, exactly, he wants to be.  — Cecilia

A Confusion of Princes, by Garth Nix, HarperCollins, $17.99, ages 12 and up.


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