Book Review: The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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The kingdom of Carthya is in trouble. Its king and queen, together with their eldest son, have been poisoned. The younger of the two princes was lost at sea four years ago, presumed dead. Its borders are lined with the armies of neighboring countries, hungry for the land’s rich resources. Once the noblemen begin squabbling over succession to the throne, the resulting civil war will show the weakness their enemies are waiting for. And so you almost can’t blame a young nobleman named Conner for coming up with a plan to put a pretended prince on the throne.

Conner’s idea is to teach an orphan who looks vaguely like the late Prince Jaron how to act like ditto. The fraud only needs to work long enough for the Council of Regents to crown the boy king. Then Conner will be in control of the government and can save the country from the tight spot its previous king got it into. To be sure his ruse will work, Conner plucks not one but three orphans out of hunger and degradation, and gives them two weeks to learn how to walk, talk, read, fence, and ride horses like a born prince. The winner will become his puppet on the throne. Technically, he collects four boys from the country’s orphanages—then has the fourth killed in front of the other three, so they understand the stakes they are playing for. For Tobias, Roden, and Sage are contestants in a non-televised reality show where the winning contestant gets to live with a lie for the rest of his life… and the other two get to die.

From the beginning, you’re in Sage’s corner in this no-quarter-given, suspense-laden, intrigue-packed, upside-down boys’ version of The Princess Academy. No doubt the fact that Sage narrates it has a lot to do with it. But even though he starts out as a hot-tempered, stubborn, rebellious pickpocket, he soon shows qualities that could make him either the best king or the hardest puppet to control. Sage swings rapidly and repeatedly between leading the pack and looking like he might get kicked off the island early, and with extreme prejudice.

Sage survives being beaten, stabbed, and singled out for all kinds of rough treatment. And while the other boys are willing to trade his life for their ambition, he makes a pact to save their lives if he wins. But first he must act the role of a lifetime, risk breaking the hearts of two beautiful girls, and fulfill a promise to his most dangerous enemy, all while saving a surprise of his own until the key moment when, if he survives, a pickpocket will become a king.

Tension, mystery, multiple layers of conflict, and various athletic exploits keep the pages turning swiftly. Plus, Sage’s mischievous but honorable character should hold a lot of appeal for young readers of both sexes. First in the projected “Ascendance Trilogy,” this book recently gained a sequel titled The Runaway King. Its Utah-based author has also published a trilogy called “Underworld Chronicles,” starting with Elliot and the Goblin War.