On the way back from Los Angeles, I started reading Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The False Prince. I had read a raving review about the novel on the Book Smugglers blog where Thea compared it favorably to Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, which I had also loved. And so I had high hopes. Contrary to my expectations, I was not blown away. Instead, I learned a lot as a writer.
The False Prince is written in short paragraphs and easy-to-read language. The chapters end with cliffhangers which tempted me to keep reading. Sage, the protagonist, is a likable character, strong, smart and rebellious, just like I’d expect a fourteen year old boy. And I loved the story: four boys competing to be the next prince of a fairytale-like country.
There were several things which disappointed me about the novel. There is a beginning of an internal conflict: Sage is not certain he wants to be king and is not sure that he will make a good king. But this moral dilemma did not unfold enough. I was not convinced that Sage believed either of the other boys would make a better king, and I could not understand his reasons for thinking he would not be good enough. He certainly seemed the obvious choice, if only because he is the narrator. To me, the other boys felt under-developed and bordering on stereotypical: the sick, the strong, and the smart.
The internal conflict especially seemed to me hampered by the fact that Sage hides a secret which is only revealed to us by the end of the book. After a chapter or two, I suspected what this secret is. After five chapters, I was sure. I think this secret, which I won’t reveal just in case you plan to read the book, is what most prevents the novel from fulfilling its potential. It is the greatest block to revealing Sage’s thoughts, prohibits him from truly growing as a character, and diminishes the suspense of the novel.
The lack of suspense also arose from the fact that the villain is an obscure character who barely appears in person in the book. Veldergrath’s notoriety perhaps received some credibility because his name resembles Voldemort’s, but the assurances within the novel that he is evil come from Conner, a character who I did not read as reliable and who clearly had ulterior motives. None of the characters challenge the certainty of Veldergrath’s villainy anywhere in the novel, and he is removed, without proof or trial, from his position by the end.
Adam Gopnik from The New York Times Book Review, called The False Prince a “page turner, not a page earner.” The book did help me pass the time of the drive back from LA, and in the end it did make me think a lot about writing techniques and editing. For being entertained for a few hours, and for this opportunity to learn as a writer, I am always grateful. For these two purposes, it was a fabulous book.