Sage is an orphan used to stealing for his dinner. Conner is a nobleman trying to prevent civil war. When their paths cross, Conner forces Sage to compete against two other orphans for a chance at riches and glory. The idea is simple: Conner will train them to impersonate the long-lost heir of Carthya. At the end of their training, Conner will pick the best orphan and present him at court. The winner gets crowned king, Conner becomes the power behind the throne, and the losing orphans will almost certainly be killed.
If Sage wants to live, he has no choice but to play along, yet Conner seems to hold all the cards. Should Sage befriend the rival orphans, who may be plotting against him? Can he protect the servant girl Imogen–who may be his only friend–if Sage is a prisoner himself? And is it worth sacrificing his freedom to rule as a puppet king?
The action and high-stakes competition reminded me a bit of The Hunger Games, but The False Prince is primarily a character-driven book. Sage, in particular, completely stole the show. It’s hard to resist his bravery and quick wit; there were times when I couldn’t stop comparing him with The Thief‘s Eugenides (verdict: pair them together and prepare to lose every valuable item in your kingdom), or Doug Swieteck from Okay for Now (like Doug, Sage doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut. Terrific). Sage’s personal journey, as he tries to balance self-respect with an understandable wish to avoid death, carried the story, much more so than Conner’s treasonous game. That’s a compliment…and also a complaint, because the book’s biggest flaw is something I rarely say to fantasy* books: more world-building, please.
I don’t need a thesis on the history and creation myths of Carthya, or (wince) poems about the beauty of its natural resources (Eragon. Ahem). But Carthya, as it’s presented, is just your stereotypical pseudo-European kingdom with horses, swords, a scheming court and unfortunate servants. (Pirates too, but they’re not important and merely nibble around the edges). Since the plot hinges around the kingdom’s instability, it would’ve been nice to make the world more distinct, and add background about the surrounding kingdoms. Without spoiling too much, there are hints that books 2 and 3 of the trilogy will delve more into the setting, and I hope they’ll continue the character-driven focus that made book 1 so much fun, too.
*Because there’s no magic, The False Prince is more alternate history than pure fantasy, but you get the idea.