Notes Jotted Down While Reading This Book:
Note #1: “Really fantastic first page. Authors take note.”
Note #2: “I’m only four pages in and already I like what I see.”
Let it be known that as a children’s librarian I read a lot of malarkey meant for the kiddos. On the down side it makes me a jaded reader. On the upside it has given me the gift of a 10-year-old’s impatience. If I’m struggling to read a particularly dull section in the first chapter then I can usually bet dollars to donuts that a kid is going to feel the same way. If, however, I pick up a book and immediately encounter a charming thief with a roast under his arm running hell-for-leather as meat cleavers are thrown in the direction of his skull, THAT I’ll pay attention to. The mark of a good action/adventure children’s book is easy. You need action and adventure. The mark of a GREAT action/adventure children’s book is difficult. You need action and adventure sure, but also a bit of brains and wit if you can get it. I haven’t read author Jennifer Nielsen’s previous novel for kids and the Goblin War but if it contains even a tenth of the excitement and downright smarts of The False Prince then it’ll be worth a look. Coming as close to the definition of a children’s psychological thriller as possible, Nielsen creates a story that will feel simultaneously new and familiar all at once. No mean feat.
Sage has never been keen on the fact that he was an orphan but usually the trouble he got into was something he could handle. No longer. When Sage finds himself essentially sold to a nobleman named Conner it doesn’t take long for him to discover that he is now a pawn in a dangerous game. Alongside three other orphans of similar age and build Sage is in the competition of a lifetime. If he wins he will be crowned as prince (the real ruler having died years ago). If he loses he will be killed. It’s the ultimate competition and the stakes are as high as they can be. Part mystery novel, part psychological war, you may see where the book is going at times but you’ll never forget the journey.
There’s a big push in this country to get boys reading and to get them there we librarians tout all kinds of thrillers. And thanks to the magic of Harry Potter, female authors no longer have to hide the fact that their chromosomes are of the XX variety (J.K. Rowling’s initials aside). Nielsen’s book should be sure to lure in the boy base, even as it pleases female readers who are hoping to find something clever in its pages. The book also manages to avoid some of the pitfalls you’ll find in fast-paced novels. I’ve never had much respect for books where a main character is killed and then instantly forgotten. Nielsen does do away with a character in this manner (in a very James Bond villain-ish scene) and I was pleased to see that Sage not only grieves for the death but continues to think about it periodically throughout the book. Nielsen does a great many things to make Sage sympathetic in the midst of acting like a jerk (charm goes a long way) but it’s this grief that first gives you insight into the fact that he’s a three-dimensional character and not just a repository for witty lines.
Keeping Sage sympathetic is a full time job for Nielsen too. To explain why I need to hang a mild SPOILER ALERT over this portion of the review. If you feel inclined to stop reading here I’ll just sum up with a quick: This is a good book. Give it to a kid. All set? Okay. So without giving too much away, Nielsen’s job in this novel is to make Sage a definite threat to the fellow boys vying for the crown. Yet he can’t really directly sabotage them without becoming unsympathetic (after all, he has an innate advantage over them). So a lot of scheming has to go on, not just from Sage’s point of view but from Nielsen’s as well. To do this, she falls into a rather brilliant set structure. It goes something like Sage in trouble / Sage clear / Sage in trouble / Sage clever, etc. It should feel rote after a while but for me Nielsen is always keeping the reader guessing.
Folks have compared The False Prince to Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief in terms of its twist ending. I can see where they’re coming from, but I found The Thief to be a book for an older audience while The False Prince is appealing to those on the younger end of the scale. And you’ll probably hear a fair number of adult readers say they saw that twist coming, but I’m fairly confident that kids will be truly shocked. Nielsen plays fair from page one but she also definitely pulls a little of the old Murder of Roger Ackroyd here and there to fool the reader (the advantage of the first person narrator). In the end, it’s really the character of Sage that supports the novel. In him kids will find a proto-Artful Dodger and a charming scamp. With enough twists and turns to keep a well-oiled brain humming, Nielsen trusts in the intelligence of her readers to follow along her delightfully complicated path. Their reward is a truly enjoyable book, start to finish.
On shelves April 1st.
Source: Reviewed from ARC sent from publisher.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
- The Great Brain by John Fitzgerald
- The Case of the Deadly Desperados by Caroline Lawrence
First Sentences: “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.”
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A book trailer it has. Short and to the point it is.