This week, on a bit of a whim, I decided to re-read A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix. Garth Nix’s books had a huge influence on me when I was growing up – I started off with The Keys to the Kingdom series and moved on to the brilliant Old Kingdom series when I was old enough, along with his stand-alone novels. Looking back, they were hugely important to me in that they helped to form the foundation of my reading tastes and experience.
By the time A Confusion of Princes was released in 2012 I wasn’t really reading much YA fiction anymore, but given that it was Garth Nix and he was doing science fiction, I couldn’t resist. I remember absolutely tearing through it, enthralled by the world that he had created. For that reason, I was a little apprehensive about re-reading it, not wanting to be disappointed. But I had nothing to worry about, because it was just as good second time around, and the plot being a little hazy in my memory meant that I could enjoy not knowing exactly where it was going.
The main character and narrator, Khemri, is one of ten million Princes in a galactic Empire. One thing I really like about the book is that Khemri is not particularly likeable to begin with: he is arrogant, totally self-centred, and concerned only with gaining power and glory. Princes are picked out from human populations at a very young age, and are augmented with technology to make them almost superhuman in their abilities. The Empire is underpinned by three types of technology: Bitek (biological), Mektek (mechanical) and Psitek (psychic). Psitek allows Princes to communicate in ‘mindspeech’ with others and also to connect with the Imperial Mind, a vast hub of information and power at the centre of the Empire. The Imperial Mind can allow Princes to be reborn into a new body when they die, effectively making them immortal (as long as certain conditions are met). The story begins when Khemri officially becomes a Prince after years of augmentation and training:
I opened my eyes and smiled. It was the first time in my life that I had been addressed not as “Prince Candidate,” but “Prince.” My remaking and training was complete. I would commandeer a sleek, deadly warship, probably a Verrent corvette or something similar, and go out into the Empire and immediately make my mark.
Or so I thought.
He quickly discovers that the reality of his situation is significantly different to his expectation – he is in immediate danger of assassination from other Princes, who want to reduce their competition in the race to become the next Emperor. He also has to sign up for further, more specific training – in Khemri’s case, circumstances force him into joining the Navy, which he is really not happy about! This cadet training section, which makes up about a quarter of the book, is reminiscent of Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. It serves partly as a way of introducing the reader to the basis of the workings of the Empire before Khemri is faced by bigger challenges outside of the Navy base.
At 337 pages, A Confusion of Princes is not particularly long and yet it manages to pack an incredible amount in. The world that Nix has created is hugely detailed and could have no doubt filled a weighty trilogy of books had he wanted it to. At times I wished it were a bit longer and more in-depth, mainly because I was enjoying it so much, but also so that the character trajectory would be a bit more gradual and other aspects of the Empire could be explored and explained. For example, I was particularly interested in the Mekbi troopers (which in my head look a lot like Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 aliens), but unfortunately Khemri’s fairly unusual ability to communicate with them was only utilised once. Nevertheless, the concise length of the book means that the plot really flies along and there is never a dull moment.
Overall, A Confusion of Princes is a very engaging read that opens a window onto an imaginative and exciting world. If you’re a sci-fi fan this is definitely worth reading, and if you enjoy it make sure to check out Garth Nix’s other excellent books!