The False Prince
Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic: 344 pp., $17.99, ages 10 and older
Most children want to be recognized as someone special. In “The False Prince,” Jennifer A. Nielsen takes that desire to an extreme with a romp of a medieval-themed, middle-grade novel. This kickoff to her new “Ascendance Trilogy” is a swashbuckling origin story about orphans forced to compete with one another for a chance to take the crown.
The book opens with a boy running through the streets being chased by a cleaver-wielding butcher hoping to retrieve a stolen roast. The thief is Sage, a mischievous almost-15-year-old on the verge of being thrown out of an orphanage until he was purchased by a man identifying himself as a friend of the king’s court. Why this “friend” wanted such a delinquent isn’t immediately clear, but it becomes apparent as this man, Master Bevin Conner, wheels his horse-drawn carriage around the land of Carthya picking up other teen orphans with an uncanny resemblance to a missing prince.
Having collected four boys, Conner announces his intention “to conduct the greatest fraud ever perpetrated within the country.” He doesn’t provide any details. He does, however, allow the boys to leave if they aren’t interested in an admittedly dangerous plot that, if successful, could reap a major reward. One boy elects to depart.
A sort of Cinderella story in reverse, each of the remaining boys, under his cloak of filth, looks the part but lacks the education, fighting skills or refinement one expects from a royal. Tobias is intelligent but not especially physical. Roden is strong but lacks leadership ability. And though Sage, who narrates the story, embodies the requisite talent for causing trouble, his sharp tongue often gets him into trouble with the very man who will decide his fate.
Sage is a quick wit, and Nielsen showcases it with terrific dialogue. When, during a sword fight, a character says to Sage, “I don’t want to kill you,” he retorts: “Lucky coincidence. I don’t want to be killed.”
Unbeknown to most commoners, the king, queen and their oldest son were all poisoned and are now dead. The whereabouts of their youngest son, Prince Jaron, is unknown, but it’s long been presumed he is also dead: He had been a passenger on a ship that was captured by pirates four years earlier. Still, Prince Jaron’s body was never found — leaving just enough wiggle room for doubt. It’s this wiggle room that Conner seeks to exploit when he takes the boys back to his estate, where the boys are given a taste of the good life with clean clothes, fresh bed linens, hot meals prepared by doting servants — and a crash course in feigning royalty.
Nielsen plays up the incongruity of a man training orphans to act like royalty but still expecting them to obey like servants. For two weeks he provides the boys with extensive training in horseback riding, sword fighting and ballroom dance as well as reading, writing and general etiquette. In the end, only one boy will be selected and presented as the long-lost prince.
A fortnight isn’t a whole lot of time to accomplish anything, especially something as ambitious as passing off an orphan as royalty, but it suits Nielsen’s purposes and her young readership. In restricting the time frame, readers get a taste of princely expectations in an action-packed narrative that aids the suspenseful plot rather than bogging it down with too much repetition.
“The False Prince” is presented in short chapters that never exceed 10 pages. It isn’t illustrated but is chock full of alluring details for adventure-loving boys. Conner’s estate is pocketed with secret passageways that Sage roams at night.
With the throne at stake, lives hang in the balance. There is some brutality in the book, which is both age- and era-appropriate but may be off-putting to some parents. At one point, Sage is sent to the dungeon, where he’s mercilessly whipped. He is also stabbed. At least two characters die bloodily, though the details are fairly bland. Likewise, the interactions Sage has with the novel’s two female characters carry only the slightest whiff of romance.
Befitting the book’s title, it isn’t only the prince who is false. Many of the book’s characters reveal themselves to be something other than what they’ve been in this well-paced novel. Individual characters’ loyalties and secrets are revealed throughout the story, including a major bombshell that will confirm engaged readers’ suspicions and get them ready for the boys’ next adventure in Book 2.