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A Confusion of Princes (or, Khemri’s Clearly Excellent Adventure)

A Confusion of Princes, Garth Nix
Harper, May 2012
Reviewed from ARC

Let’s go back in time for a moment, to the heady golden days of science fiction as the place where sweeping stories examine the nature of humanity and also contain explosions and cool tech.

Are you with me?

Because A Confusion of Princes is a throwback in the best way possible.

This is pure space opera, which grows from adventure and Western roots. In this case, it’s space opera with a dash of coming of age and lots and lots of fun tech (only it’s tek here, and there’s a ton of it, each bit more inventive than the last), all of which adds up to the contemporary version of a Boy’s Own adventure.

Hallmarks of the genre to which this belongs and homages to the space opera of yesteryear abound. Scifi is not my genre, so I know there are levels here I missed. Happily, io9 is there to help as is; the coverage of Confusion in genre-focused sites says a lot about its pedigree and place in its tradition; while YA does get covered in these sources, it’s relatively unusual. Both reviews mention Heinlein, the starter science fiction for generations of readers, as well as Dune, another major touchpoint in the genre, among other influences and connections.

Okay, so that’s the genre piece: Nix takes established genre conventions and tweaks* them to create something that feels new, and is certainly different within the context of YA science fiction. Genre-blending (which we’ve noted before tends to be a plus when it comes to the Printz) this is not, and there will be some readers who can’t get past the genre trappings; lots of the science and general references Khemri makes just need to be accepted, because there’s not much explanation given. The breakneck pace, which is another hallmark of the tradition in which this belongs, is yet another factor that might possibly turn off some readers.

(Remember how we talked about genre bias? I think legit science fiction gets it worst. For far too many readers, Ender’s Game is the beginning and end of their exposure to real** science fiction, as opposed to dystopias or light sf or near future scifi. Also, I believe the fan community doesn’t always like scifi as a term, but the YA community does so we’re sticking with it.)

But there is more here than just playing with tropes, although that’s a large part of the book. This is also that classic YA journey I keep referencing, from acted upon to acting upon. Khemri, who like a good YA protagonist narrates in first person, is quite literally the creation of the Empire. He was taken as a child, raised and altered, and as the book opens, is a naïve young thing waiting for greatness to find him. By the end, he’s still young but he has gained something not entirely unlike wisdom and he has taken control of his own future — which, in this world, for a Prince, is a particularly impressive feat.

Khemri’s voice is a pleasure to read. He’s got a bit of a sense of humor, and Nix uses a near future looking back on the events perspective to make Khemri — who could have been yet another unlikable character (I feel we’ve had a lot of those this year, or maybe I’m just in a rut) — appealing and easy to root for, even when he’s being his most arrogant self. His own understanding of his own failings — willful ignorance, arrogance, and sometimes downright stupidity — allows the reader to join him in a sort of affectionate tolerance, because it’s clear from the first page that the Khemri narrating has evolved from the Khemri he’s describing.

I also loved the immediate sense of person and place in those opening pages: the narrative opens with a few rather grandiose, Princely statements and quickly slips into a much more natural voice. That Princely voice does two things very quickly: it brings the reader right into the world and some of the social hierarchy and establishes the character, who is not exactly what he initially seems to be. For all the conditioning and vainglorious posturing, Khemri is a decent guy.

(The fact that I loved this  technique is not actually something that matters, but textually speaking, I as a reader and a critic thought it was a very effective manipulation of voice. But that dispassionate statement doesn’t convey that there is anything fun about the manipulation, does it?)

The world building — an element of literature that I know I tend to be nitpicky about, and where I often find flaws that crack the windshield — mostly works. Some of that is due to Nix’s use of tropes (great big intergalactic government, hierarchy and bureaucracy), which provide immediate familiarity and grounding for the reader, and some of it is that since Khemri is intentionally recording his tale for some listener not in the know, there is ample room for infodumping that never feels dumped.

And then there were a few things that maybe don’t work as well — I had some questions about economy and the relationship between Princes and subjects. But then again, Khemri doesn’t know enough either, so some of the questions I had about the world might be questions not of the world but of an ignorant and biased narrator, which is a pretty nifty trick when you think about it.

The plotting might be almost too pacy (the io9 reviewer noted this as well). It’s so fast you hardly have time to breathe, and nuances largely fall by the wayside. In terms of popularity and appeal, I think this falls on the plus side, but it may sacrifice some development.

In the end, this may be too derivative (however intentionally) to win an award for its literary aspects, especially as it occasionally drifts rather close to pastiche. But I think it certainly deserves any and all accolades heaped upon it. I’m hoping big success and also that it can trigger a resurgence of interest in (and publisher support for) real scifi aimed at teens (although if you need a sales pitch, you could call this dystopic, since the trajectory of believing your government rocks to seeing your government sucks is definitely present).

Finally, the counterargument: I’ve heard it said that the obsession committee-think seems to have with books that push genres and envelopes is a narrow view of Literature, and books that embraces the tropes and play so well within the confines of genre also deserve recognition. This certainly fits that version of award worthy.

So, what do we think? Does this have what it takes to make the shortlist or is it just a fun pastiche?

*For example, did you catch the quick references to skin color? Khemri is brown, and if you trust that tiny cover image, it’s by way of Southeast Asian heritage (although he’s lighter on the cover than I would have thought from the little description the text provides). And then there’s some stuff with the tek and societal conventions that’s pretty now.

**Okay, that’s a loaded term. Old-fashioned? What’s the scifi equivalent of high fantasy?

About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.


  1. …I think I need to bloody get around to reading this one already.

    Usually the term is “hard SF,” though that sometimes gets into level-of-science in a way we’re not dealing with here.

  2. My first inclination was “hard science fiction,” too, but Miriam’s right — this still doesn’t have the scientific/technical focus that true hard SF would have. There’s gotta be some term for science fiction that deals with aliens and robots, as opposed to dystopian girls in fancy dresses. Hmm.

  3. It’s definitely not hard SF, since Nix doesn’t really try to explain the science of very much. Maybe we can coin the phrase “High SF” meaning it is SF through and through but not technical enough to be “hard”?

    In any case, I loved this book. My brother, a devoted Nix fan, and a devoted hater of books that get too carried away with their own world-building loved it (his comments here:

    Over on Heavy Medal right now, they’re talking about “boy books” v. “girl books” and I think what makes this prototypical “boy book” stand out so well is that it never ever compromises on the “boy” elements of plot and SF, but still finds time to create a deeply interesting, morally complex main character, and a set of morally ambiguous themes about empire, exploitation, human nature, and more.

    I would love to see this one honored in January.

  4. Jonathan Hunt says

    Love this one!

  5. I really enjoyed this one. It reads very differently from Nix’s fantasy series Sabriel–a definite indication of his range and talent as a writer.

    This was, however, such a fast read that I agree it was difficult to stop and really appreciate the literary merits of the book.

  6. I loved the set up for this one but really had issues with the end–the sudden change of heart due to Khemri’s Great Love tipped the line for me from familiar tropes to cliched. But the world was great and I’d really enjoy another book set in it.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      @Maureen, I thought it was made not cliche because of the world: in a world where emotional connection is almost entirely absent, by design, because it’s how the entire bureaucracy and hierarchy of the world works, of COURSE it’s love that changes Khemri. It’s almost telegraphed from the beginning as the inevitable; why else are relationships based in emotion so explicitly forbidden?

  7. I really like your point and I guess I just had trouble buying it. Almost like I wish it were true? But maybe I should re-read–often first reads are problematic for me.

  8. I found this a fascinating read, but rather slow–I wish there had been a way to establish the character and all his limitations and flaws without the terribly dragging boring-life stuff leading up to his first death.

    And I did find it overall a bit pat and simplistic. Great worldbuilding, great character, but light on plot and just… light.


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