Friday, December 14, 2012

Royal Whiplash: A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix

With The Hobbit heading to the big screen this weekend (and Shlomo's review shortly to follow!), Tolkien's beloved young adult novel finds itself back in demand. Many adults are likely picking it up for the first time, and who can blame them? Grown ups reading kid or teen books is hardly a new idea, as many of them are simply good stories, regardless of the way publishers choose to categorize them. As a bookseller I often encountered people who were surprised to learn that darker tales, like Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, could be shelved as "Teen Fiction". Recent years have seen many other examples of these books picking up an older readership, and subsequently being made into (often less successful) film adaptations: Coraline, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and certain other series that I'm disinclined to name aloud.

One 'young adult' author I've followed for some time is Garth Nix, a prolific writer of fantasy series including the Abhorsen trilogy, The Keys to the Kingdom, and The Seventh Tower, among others. As all of these demonstrate a propensity for strange and epic worldbuilding, with each universe’s set of abstractions and absurdities taken as mundane by their inhabitants. Nix's new novel, A Confusion of Princes (HarperCollins, 2012), is a foray into Space Opera territory that I knew would be grand and intricate. His fantasy background spills over, with his treatment of technology living up to Clark’s Laws. Going in I hoped this was to be the first book in a new series, and by the end I felt certain it would have worked better that way. The massive tomes of Harry Potter gave the lie to the idea that kids won't read big books (not that I believed it to begin with), and with multiple series under his belt, I'm not certain why Nix chose this route here.

A Confusion of Princes is narrated by Khemri, a "Prince" within a vast interplanetary empire far in humanity’s future. Princes in this tale are more like supersoldiers; taken from their families by force at a young age, they are given advanced physical and mental skills in order to help rule the Empire. They must take directives from the Emperor, a distant authority that supervises and directs the Princes and their servants through technologically-mediated ‘mindspeech’. Through this Imperial Mind, Princes can access data about the empire and each other, call upon the Mind to witness and record what is going on around them, and even backup their consciousness so, in the event of death, a prince can be reincarnated if deemed worthy. Each Prince has a collection of underlings assigned to them, from concubines to assassins to priests. We don’t learn much about how these people fall into these roles –  although our hero views them as lesser beings for most of the book, it would have been nice to see some of them fleshed out more. Khemri recounts his life – and deaths – as he aspires to become the next Emperor. Although superior to normal humans, he is ignorant about their lives, which naturally manages to throw a wrench into his plans.

Author Garth Nix
The book wrestles with similar themes to Nix's previous works, where questions of choosing power and magic over one's humanity came to a boil more slowly. Here, Khemri's story darts from challenge to challenge several times, his lack of direction in life more meandering than mysterious. As heroes on journeys tend to do, he starts off with a wise Master of Assassins as his guide, whisking him into the next stage of training as a Prince at a Navel academy. Khemri doesn’t get much time to develop a close bond with him, or seem to develop any meaningful relationships,  until ... ah, the 'love story' arrives about halfway through the book. After a life of superficial relationships and (quite literally) mindless concubines, Khemri naturally falls for the first human girl (or human, period) he finds capable of holding decent conversation. Devastating. Where Raine could have been built into a character capable of standing alone, we never get to see her as much more than this dazzling treasure that Khemri stumbles upon. And lo and behold, she shows him that humans are individuals to be valued and (oh boy) protected, with things like thoughts and homes and family dinners. Once again, the potential for an effective build-up is breezed over, with little more than a few chapters that boil down to little more than "And then we fell in love and cuddled". Yes, it's a young adult book, which often goes extra heavy on the lovey-dovey drawn-out teen heartbreak, but giving a summary of our hero’s emotional journey instead of, say, an actual recounting? That's not the solution. Some characters in Nix's other works have also been cold and distant to the point of distraction, but here we barely get the time to even register most of them, let alone see them built up as people. Too much of the book was like watching a film on fast forward, where every now and again the caption "Several Months Later" would blip by. While the book argues against seeing other people as puppets, it seems content to treat characters as merely tools of the plot. I want to care about them, and the moments where I do kept me reading, but it still feels all too fleeting.

One of the more intriguing (and thus of course, frustratingly underdeveloped) portions of the book comes from its approach to futuristic civilization. The humans and aliens both seem to have three different kinds of technology in this world, straightfowardly called ‘teks’: mechanical ‘Mektek’, biological ‘Bitek’, and mental (more like magical) ‘Psitek’. Each Prince has a priest who specializes in some form of these, but we never learn much about where they were developed or what the Empire’s history is, save a few references to ‘Ancient Earth’. This could have spun out in fascinating directions (even been the solid foundation for a video game spinoff!) and the tek we do see is clever, but it still left me wanting more. We don't see much in the way of aliens, either, other than a bunch of bad ones that show up to cause damage. The fact that these "Sad-Eyes" turn other beings into mental puppets (aside from being kind of cool) seemed initially like some promising foreshadowingm, but after the initial conflict they vanish and we don't deal with them again. In Nix’s other books of magic and wonder, he can get away with a bit more of the "this is how things are, just go with it": in some cases logic and physics have gone out the window but that's okay, because the characters are compelling and, for the mysterious bits, we're at least promised answers in due time. While A Confusion of Princes has an interesting premise and compelling protagonist, the other characters come up tragically short, and the answers we're given for the most part fail to satisfy. Even the title seems primed for a follow-up, but (spoiler alert) the numerous severed ties at the end of the book would make this difficult.

A Confusion of Princes is a young adult novel that should have been a full adult series. With a fascinating world and an interesting hero, I wish the end hadn’t tried to be so tidy. By the conclusion, Khemri realizes his place in an ultimately flawed system, but doesn't do much to try to fix it, only escape as best he can; this felt like something of a cop-out, given the powers he had to change it from within and the adventures he could have had trying. As a fan of well-woven fictional universes, seeing one with potential rushed through and glossed over is, indeed, a confusion.

 Catharine Charlesworth is an avid lover of books, the web, and other inventive outlets for the written word. She has studied communication at the University of Toronto while working as a bookseller, and is currently employed in online advertising in downtown Toronto. 

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