Book Title: The False Prince (Ascendence Trilogy #01) Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen Number of pages: 342
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.
Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr review:
– Competitive premise; tautly written page-turning narrative and palatable action sequences
– Low fantasy featuring historical/medieval undertones (no magic or anything as of now) and a politically driven conflict
– World building may not be descriptively vibrant if you’re used to intricate magic systems etc.
– The protagonist walks around with a a witty “better than you” swagger. Likability factor depends on the readers opinion on grey characters that aren’t “good” for the sake of being a hero
– Romance is a bit of instalust and/or love triangle but is not the focus at all.
Good ol’ MG Fantasy pick-me-up.
Holy. Shit. (And that’s a good holy shit, too.)
When a series geared towards MG audiences features a protagonist far more grey than the average YA hero, well…shit, I’m sold. If you were looking for a “MG Fantasy” not Riordan, Colfer, or Rowling, you should give Nielsen’s series a nod.
What follows is a nuanced tale following four orphaned boys and a competition to find a carbon copy replacement for the lost Prince Jaron. There aren’t large battles being fought but small bouts of physicality and intelligible wit that see these kids vying for the position to stand atop a crumbling kingdom.
Is The False Prince predictable? Perhaps.
However, the marquee of solid storytelling is when predictability is a product of skeptical reading that seeks to encourage the mystery/suspenseful nature of the story not by the visibility of popularized tropes.
Most of The False Prince takes place in-and-around Connor’s estate. From outside with all the fix-ins of a stable, a nearby river, and various stone-and-mortar walls to the interior of hidden rooms, stark bedrooms, rugs and aged wood, the manor set the right tone for a low-key Fantasy story. I actually find it hard pressed to not claim this story to be historical/medieval [“low”] fantasy rather than anything of the high/epic fantasy classification.
While this might be a non-issue, I’m uncertain if the writing justified the vividness of imagery (re world building) or if it was just me pulling from other mediums. I’m not looking for purple prose or sugary writing per se but something more substantiated perhaps.
There are hints at a larger world but the learning curve isn’t info-dumpy or strenuous to follow. I think hardcore fantasy fans might feel cheated by this story as it can be overly simplistic in creativity and delivery, but given what it offers, the lore and politically driven conflict readers come to learn about is justified and does well to propel the story into the second book.
If there’s one thing that stands out in The False Prince, it’s how richly textured this story is; with humour, deception, cunning wit, and most importantly: an impeccable desire to remain skeptical. It’s a whirlwind of a book that reads so effortlessly due to the random spurts of action sequences and veiled mystery that drives the urgency and thematic tone of this survive-at-all-costs narrative.
There is, however, a caveat to the narration that makes me question the first person storytelling. I won’t expand on it (re spoilers) but just say that there are writing choices that [I would imagine] focus on delivering a taut story rather than to describe each gritty detail that would have otherwise made this book another 50-100+ pages.
Simply put: Sage is a standout lead. He’s layered and carries the attributes I enjoy reading in a protagonist: charismatic, witty, skeptical, and [cautiously] courageous. Plus, he’s an asshole (most of the time); which can prove to be difficult to root for. But there’s an charm in everyone being a douche in this story (despite being adolescent kids–not even YA) because it is a competition and the stakes are very high. No one is inherently good for “fun”. Hidden motives are everywhere and that’s the defining factor that makes this lead so fun to follow.
That being said, I have to address Sage’s limited growth. With most storylines that plop you right into the conflict, character growth [typically] stifles and is rarely ever the focus. This is one of those scenarios. At the present time, Sage just trying to survive the best he can; someway, somehow, and though there are glimpses of his sincerity to be humanly better, there’s no satisfaction to his current growth. And I’m fine with that. If he were to grow up ten fold, it would make his arc that much more tedious going forward.
If you’re someone to gravitate towards romance, I assure you that there is some of that. It’s a “friendship first, slow burn“ type of romance that can feel a bit damsel in distress-y and love triangle-y but both parties play key roles as confidantes, never letting romance really take the reigns and push the story along.
Jennifer Nielsen’s The False Prince is a taut series opener featuring an asshole (re “better than you”) of a protagonist who’s actually enjoyable to read. The world embodies a historical/medieval tone and doesn’t have any overly dramatic flair. As far as the writing is concerned, there are limitations put on the first person POV but, as an overall, I found this story to be unputdownable.