Anytime a novel starts talking about “the Empire,” I don’t default to thinking of the Galactic Empire of Star Wars, but rather of the Empire in Isaac Asimov’s shared universe, found in the Foundation and Robot novels. At this point, the only thing holding back the believability Asimov’s great and bountiful Empire is the dated “futuristic” technology. A Confusion of Princes doesn’t have that problem, and throws in dashes of Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein combined with fast-paced YA breathless prose.
Like a lot of YA with a speculative fiction backbone, A Confusion of Princes is quick. The prose is rapid-fire the plot is unpacked without fuss, and the world building is dispensed via easy conventions. The novel centers on Khemri, a Prince in a galactic empire populated by tons of other princes, and copious amounts of gee-wiz technology. In order to get a lot of explanations out of the way most effectively, Nix employs a first person narrative, though unlike something like The Hunger Games, Nix adopts a decidedly more formal tone. At one point very early on, Khemri tells the reader that if “you” are also a rival prince then the “recording” (book) will blow up in your face.
This kind of fun, total immersion is exactly what makes A Confusion of Princes entertaining. The experience of reading this book reminded me of being 12 or 13 and being totally enthralled by various tie-in novels for Star Trek and Star Wars. Here, characters are dodging laser blasts, mysterious enemies are lurking in the background, and spaceships are out there in the universe for enterprising young people to command. But, despite familiar science fiction space opera trappings, A Confusion of Princes feels relatively new in its basic conceit. Khemri is immortal, but not immortal through magical or mysterious means. Instead, his entire DNA structure has been rewritten to make him immortal, which is not dissimilar from his literary cousin Lazarus Long of Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love. In a kind of mash-up, Khemri also reveals to the reader that all the Princes of the Universe (couldn’t help it!) have the ability to be reborn after death. This makes the ruling class of Nix’s Empire a little like a cross-between the cylons of Battlestar Galactica and the Time Lords of Doctor Who.
For contemporary popular science fiction fans; shades of Gallifrey echo throughout the novel, mostly because the power of this particular empire seems to be a little too far reaching and all controlling. Khemri, though initially naïve, has a decent conscience and code of ethics, making him something of an outsider among his fellow rival princes. It’s in this code of honor where I was reminded of Paul Atreides of Dune. Khemri is arrogant and proud, and believes he would make a nobler Emperor than anyone else.
However, Nix does a great job of not making us dislike Khemri. Instead, our initial reaction to Khemri’s boasts range from “oh, that’s cute, he thinks he’s awesome” to “well, maybe he can actually do it.” A brooding, over-serious Anakin Skywalker wouldn’t really do here, and Khemri has a more of a sense of humor and an ability to change than Paul Atreides. Which is where the novel really works for me. A lot of YA novels have a coming-of-age theme central to the story, which almost always requires the protagonist to change in some subtle or not-so-subtle way. The nice thing about A Confusion of Princes is the conflict is hoisted on Khemri in the opening pages, meaning we want him to grow up as fast as possible so he won’t die! In short, his coming-of-age is integral to the plot of the book working, and everything feeling satisfying.
Thematically, none of this is particularly new. But the science fiction world Garth Nix creates is just audacious enough to seem fresh. I like the idea of teens or pre-teens devouring this book, and then, years later reading Dune or Foundation. I like the idea of them debating which one is better. For my money, I know Dune and Foundation are probably better pieces of art. But A Confusion of Princes is extremely fun to read, and possibly more entertaining than those famous novels. And what’s wrong with a little entertainment?
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.