The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen is one of those books that had me from page one and didn't let me go until the end, with the exception of the couple times I had to get up and walk around the room to let off some pent up energy caused by my intense involvement in the story.
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
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.
If I had to do it all over again, I would not have chosen this life. Then again, I'm not sure I ever had a choice. These were my thoughts as I raced away from the market, with a stolen roast tucked under my arm. I'd never attempted roast thievery before, and I was already regretting it. It happens to be very difficult to hold a chunk of raw meat while running. More slippery than I'd anticipated. If the butcher didn't catch me with his cleaver first, and literally cut off my future plans, I vowed to remember to get the meat wrapped next time. Then steal it.
Anyone who is a regular reader of this blog will not find it surprising that with a beginning like that one I was caught. And all of it because of Sage. There is always room in the world for another clever, sarcastic, rash, thief and I will always enjoy reading about such characters. Sage is no exception. He was a very easy character for me to engage with. As his story unfolds you get a picture of a boy who is torn by the decisions he is having to make. He is whiny, he is brash, he is cocky, and he is sarcastic. He is also honorable with feelings that run deep and is clearly torn up by what is going on around him. There were a lot of other characters I came to have strong feelings for, but don't want to give anything away so will not say anymore. Except there are three other characters I very much fell for as well. And I appreciated how Conner was sometimes likable despite his despicable actions.
Sage is an unreliable narrator and the reader knows this from the beginning. The narrative reveals enough for the reader to get a sense of the internal struggle Sage is waging while still maintaining an air of suspense and mystery. The political intrigue in this is excellently done. Treason, half truths, all out lies, and backstabbing (literally) happening all over the place. It is action packed for sure. The tension in some scenes had me bouncing in my seat. The ending definitely completed this story while leaving plenty of development available for the sequel. There was one chapter toward the end that suddenly pulled out of Sage's first person narration and that was a bit jarring. There was also a good bit of back story that needed explaining at one point that was a tad awkward and didn't seem to fit with the rest of the narrative.
Being a book about a mouthy thief with a lot of political intrigue comparisons to Megan Whalen Turner are inevitable. Nielsen lists Turner as an influence on her Goodreads page and that influence is certainly obvious as one reads this book. If you have read The Thief you will be forced to make comparisons. I believe that fans of Turner will enjoy this as long as they go into it remembering Sage is not Gen and his story is a different one and very much his own. For one he sounds younger and less sure of himself. His unreliability comes from being completely at sea, coming to terms with what he must do, and knowing there is no one he can fully trust (though he wants someone he can talk to). Personally, in a direct comparison I believe this book suffers. Others, such as Thea from The Book Smugglers, disagree.
This is a fantasy novel as it is about countries that don't exist and never had, however there is nothing overtly fantastical about the world. There is no magic or mythical creatures. There are still two more books to come so possibly more fantastical elements will be coming. Even if they don't the story is strong enough without them.