Ever since I began this whole book-review-blog thing, I’ve tried to keep an ear to the ground when it comes to books. I’ve subscribed to various podcasts and a few online reading groups on Goodreads, as well as asking my friends what they’re reading. My friends are the ones who are most likely to throw books my way (sometimes literally – and believe me, trying to catch a hefty book like Neal Stephenson’s ReaMdE is no joke), which is great since I trust them to have excellent, excellent taste. As for the rest of it, I listen to podcasts like Sword and Laser and The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy for news on what’s coming out, as well as to help me discover new authors whom I might not have heard otherwise.
Some, though, I’ve been reading since I was young, and Garth Nix is one of those authors. Ever since I discovered his Abhorsen Trilogy in high school I’ve been in love with his writing, especially because of his world-building. This is something I’ve always looked out for in the authors I read, and is pretty much an important qualification before I consent to pick up the rest of an author’s work. I blame Tolkien; his Middle-Earth is so beautifully and almost perfectly constructed that I look for that same quality in all the books I read. And in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, world-building is crucial. I want to be able to immerse myself in a world, and hopefully I’ll be able to do this via characters who are fun to listen to (in first-person narratives) and hang out with (in third-person narrative).
So when I found out, on a Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy interview, that Nix had written a space opera-type story, I was all over it. The Abhorsen Trilogy is fantasy, and most of his other work (which I’ve read but didn’t find as interesting as the Abhorsen books) have been primarily fantasy, so this foray into sci-fi made me very excited indeed. Influence from my friends and my own recent reading had made me exceptionally receptive to space opera, so as soon as I could get ahold of Nix’s A Confusion of Princes, I started in on it – especially since my friend Hope had already begun reading it.
Now, something my friends are quite familiar with is the fact that I’m “spoiler-proof.” Essentially, this means that they can tell me the ending of a book or a movie, if they so choose, and I won’t try to tear them apart for spoiling me. Some people don’t want to be spoiled; I’m the sort of person who couldn’t care either way, since it won’t affect my enjoyment of the story. Hope is aware of this, and so when she warned me that there would be some issues in the storyline regarding buildup and ending, I took it, and said I’d find out for myself. I knew she would most likely be right (Hope’s got a really sharp mind when it comes to these things), but I wanted to find out for myself if this was true. After all, I could very well disagree with her.
Unfortunately, it turned out she was very right.
A Confusion of Princes is the story of a Prince named Khemri, who is one of ten million Princes, all of them in line to be the next leader of an empire spanning what appears to be an enormous chunk of the galaxy. There are alien races, but the Empire is predominantly human, with the race tracing its origins back to Earth, though the Earth itself has been lost so deep in the mists of history that it’s practically a legend.
Khemri, like other Princes (who are not necessarily male – a great many are also female, just as the Emperor might also be female), is superhuman, engineered – but not at birth – to be a cut above the rest of the ordinary humans living in the Empire. Carefully raised in a temple to believe that rule of the Empire is his birthright, an attempt on Khemri’s life before he even leaves the temple makes him realize that being a Prince is not all fun and games, that it is, in fact, a dangerous, deadly game, the rules of which he isn’t even entirely aware of. And he has wise up fast if he wants to reach his ultimate goal.
Khemri as a character is pretty funny. His very sheltered upbringing means that he knows absolutely zip about the world beyond the temple he was raised in, but his initially firm belief that this ignorance is of no consequence, that he will succeed because he’s a Prince, and moreover an important one, even though he hasn’t done anything to warrant that importance, is hilarious. There were quite a few moments during the first one-third of the book when I thought of Khemri as a rather impetuous but very inexperienced puppy, one needing guidance from a far more intelligent and more experienced hand – in this case, his Master of Assassins, Haddad. Despite Haddad’s guidance, however, Khemri still gets into a lot of scrapes, but he does learn relatively quickly how to stop being stupid.
Now that I mention Haddad, I would like to mention the world-building in this book, which is spectacular, to say the least. Just like with his world-building in the Abhorsen books, Nix has created a fantastic world which makes sense in terms of its structure, and, moreover, is great at immersing the reader in the world without getting them lost. To be fair, the choice of point-of-view for this novel (first-person) helps in that a lot: Khemri’s been so isolated in his temple that he is the perfect foil for the reader to learn about the world around him – as he learns about it, so do we. Aside from that, though, the world itself works brilliantly on its own: the three different kinds of technology – Bitek, Psitek, and Mektek – all work together with the Imperial Mind to form the basis for the kind of Society the Empire is.
Princes, especially, are highly influenced by the connection between the three teks and the Imperial Mind: not only are they engineered to have all three kinds of tek built into them, they are constantly in touch with the Imperial Mind, which they can use as a source of information for absolutely anything. They can even use it to “witness” events – kind of a way of showing what’s going on around them in order to prove whether or not something has happened, like an assassination attempt, for instance. Because of this connection, Princes are the Imperial Mind’s – and thus the Emperor’s – link to the rest of the Empire, acting in the name of the Empire and enforcing its will all across its territory.
Alongside the realities that a Prince of the Empire must live, there are glimpses of how the rest of the Empire operates – that side of the Empire that doesn’t have a direct link to the Imperial Mind, a world with mind-programmed servants, alien soldiery, and common people try to get by as best as they can. What is shown of this world stands in direct contrast to Khemri’s experience as a Prince: it’s not an easy life, to be sure, but in some ways it might be a better one than what he’s living as a Prince. Khemri learns this, too, the hard way.
With such a great world that could be explored, and some elements of military sci-fi that, so I believe, could easily compare in terms of quality to what I’ve read of Lois Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, I was entirely prepared to settle down into a long, pleasantly drawn-out tale wherein Khemri has his snootiness beaten out of him in a variety of ways, even as he learns to be less a Prince and more a human being. I was entirely prepared for this transformation to be long, gradual, and hilarious, especially with Haddad in tow providing the necessary subtle but deadpan commentary, and the mysterious Morojal showing up every so often to give Khemri a more direct slap to the face in her own way. In fact, I was entirely prepared to have this extend beyond one book: the way the story was structured could have been sufficient for a trilogy, maybe even a quartet, showing Khemri’s progress through the ranks of the Imperial Navy as an Adjuster, until at last he becomes Emperor – or not, since it was a possibility he might be able to take.
Except that’s not what happens. What I get instead is a severely truncated version of the above, with an equally hurried rush to the ending – an ending which I’d expected to see in maybe two more books down the line. In truth, I felt rather cheated – cheated of a grand adventure I’d been led to expect; cheated of an attempt to explore this incredible new fictional universe; and cheated of a chance to really get to know Khemri himself. I really liked him as a character, and I also liked the other characters he encountered: Atalin, for instance, who looked like him for reasons that are explained later on; and Raine, who forms an important part of Khemri’s development as a human; hell, even Khemri’s rivals for the throne, all of whom are eager to kill him or use him to their advantage. So much of the world has incredible potential for in-depth storytelling opportunities: the House system for Princes, and all those Assassins – Master and apprentice alike – wandering around, for example; or the fact that entire worlds and their inhabitants are used by both the Empire and the Princes as part of their gigantic chess game against each other. Nix has created a world so rich and multilayered, and, more importantly, populated it with characters I could potentially care about, but by bringing this book to an abrupt end I don’t have the chance to see more of it, and that is truly sad.
Overall, A Confusion of Princes is a novel with a great deal of potential: the characters are engaging, the world is very interesting, and the story itself has a great deal going for it. But by rushing to the end and closing it off the way he does, Nix deprives the reader of any real opportunity to settle into the world and explore it, or even to really get to know the characters and see them grow. I’m crossing my fingers that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Khemri, or at the very least of the world he’s from, but unless Garth Nix decides to write some more books, I guess this is the last and only chance any of us readers will have to enjoy both, and that is rather depressing.