Just a touch of vague spoilers.
A friend of mine has been telling me to read Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The False Prince, first in The Ascendance Trilogy, since before it was published. I wish that I had listened sooner—though I suppose that since I did wait, I will have a shorter wait between books, which is a boon.
A high fantasy set in a kingdom on the brink of a civil war, one man has a plan to avoid the war by training a prince for the throne—a prince culled from orphanages around the kingdom.
The narrator and de facto protagonist Sage is a wonderfully entertaining (so snarky) and terribly unreliable narrator. This is a plot of plots, secrets, and lies, trust and distrust, and Sage embodies all of these. He will deny having done something—something we’ve not seen him do—only to reveal later that somewhere between the narration he has done exactly as he has told the other characters that he has not; he reveals to the reader and the characters only some—and not all of it is true. This book finely uses red herrings, the author and the protagonist working together to mislead and misdirect readers and characters—and mislead both successfully.
What is stunning is that Sage comes off as relatively open about his history and thoughts. I didn’t feel misled till he began to reveal what he had hidden. I should have suspected he was working between the lines from the number of knives and knickknacks that he pilfered without telling me, but I was not clever enough to take these as foreshadowing.
Though Nielsen hints at larger stories and more developed characters behind several of side characters, especially Mott, whose history I hope to see revealed in sequels, and Amarinda, Sage spends so much time veiling his own history and keeps others at such a distance that these characters lacked the detailed backstories that I hoped for them. I hope sequels will remedy this.
The plot, scraped bare of all the complexities of its narrator and its characters, is an exciting one in its own right: stop civil war by committing treason, learn the lie or die. Nielsen manages to make two weeks of lessons in a confined setting go by quickly, mostly by utilizing Sage’s snarky wit and practiced nonchalance.
I have a difficult time placing this book at an appropriate reading level and am glad to see it surviving despite that difficulty. In its length and its protagonists’ need to find his place among a group of peers and in society, it is middle-grade. A few of the more brutal lessons and its “or die” plot that leaves the reader thinking two young teens will be killed before the end of the novel push it towards a teen reading level, as does the inferred questioning of the established order and morality. Plus, Sage is fifteen, a little old for the first book of a typical middle-grade series. Barnes & Noble places it in the teen section.
I suspect that as this series goes on, it will become more firmly teen, politics and romance taking even more prominent roles. Sage is a character I’m not willing to confine to one book. I look forward to seeing him again.
Nielsen, Jennifer A. The Ascendance Trilogy, Book 1: The False Prince. New York: Scholastic, 2012.
This review is not endorsed by Jennifer A. Nielsen or Scholastic Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.