A Confusion of Princes marks Garth Nix's return to the sci-fi genre post Shade's Children and a welcome return to the field it is. Whilst Nix is perhaps best known for the brilliantly inventive Abhorsen Trilogy, Confusion revisits a genre within which Nix had already set a high benchmark with his tale of a not so distant future in which a set of evil Overlords have ruled for a period of fifteen years due to a catastrophic “change”. (Whilst this set up is now relatively familiar within the YA sub-genre, Nix can arguably be credited as somewhat of a trend setter for providing us with a clear example of post-apocalyptic dystopia prior to the popular and recent emergence of the genre).
Genre similarity aside, however, A Confusion of Princes provides us with an altogether trickier protagonist for consideration and one who causes Nix to have to work harder as an author to convince his audience to engage with.
Confusion concerns itself with the story of Prince Khemri, a genetically enhanced individual trained to become a Prince of the Empire and one who is engaged in a battle for supremacy as one of ten million princes, only one of whom can ultimately succeed in becoming Emperor. The remaining candidates will find themselves eliminated one way or another… So far, so promising. Nix also takes the trouble to ensure his language is spot on sci-fi specific and we are soon drawn into a Heinlein-esque environment in which the Imperial Mind, Bitek agents, Mektek armor and Psitek force shields are par for the course. (Nix even credits Heinlein within his own Acknowledgments at the outset of the novel).
Clearly, however, Nix is not content merely to provide a convincing backdrop within which for his characters to run rampant or to revisit old ground in his provision of a sci-fi premise for his narrative thread. In providing us with Prince Khemri as his main protagonist, Nix seeks to up the ante further. The Prince is a youthful narrator, “not yet twenty in the old Earth years by which it is still the fashion to measure time” and, thus, it might be presupposed one with whom Nix’s intended YA audience might engage.
This assumption is challenged quickly and by deliberate design. Despite being made aware at the outset of events that Khemri has been separated from his parents as a baby at the specific instructions of the Emperor, he spares little thought for them, suggesting there is “no point” in doing so. He is convinced of his “special” nature and the certainty that he will one day become Emperor. This persists even once he has become aware he is one of the millions of Princes who are to compete for the honour of ruling the Empire. As such, it is difficult to find any initial sympathy for Khemri, even once we become aware his supposed security cannot be depended upon, as an initial attempt is made upon his life as part of the candidacy process. True to form, Khemri is supplied with a Master of Assassins, Haddad, who successfully foils the assassin’s attack. Additionally, we are advised within the very first sentence of the novel that he has died three times and been “reborn” on each occasion, which reduces the overall sense of threat which might logically follow any reference to death. Still, Nix is quick to ensure the reader is aware matters are not as clearly cut as they might at first appear and utilises a number of devices to do so.
Despite Khemri’s initial arrogance, Nix ensures this is undercut at the outset by the Prince’s recognition of his own “wilful misapprehension” at his sense of importance, thus ensuring we are aware his overall outlook has changed somewhat since the occurrence of the events presently charted. Similarly, later, the Prince freely admits when he is slow to react to a potential threat, which directly contradicts the posturing we witness elsewhere. Further, we are shown that the mouthy candidate has learned at least a modicum of tact whilst he is subject to the discipline of the Naval Academy as part of his path towards eventual rule of the Empire.
Nix keeps events pacey throughout, zipping through Khemri’s naval training and the various Princes with whom he may find himself in more serious competition as their numbers dwindle in their race towards the finishing post. This works both ways, ensuring pages turn quickly and we are hard on the heels of Khemri’s own urgency to prove his overall worth but also serves to prove that, in some instances, we are aware it would be interesting to spend additional time with those we encounter along the way to explore in-depth analysis of characterisation. (This is also arguably true in the context of the subsequent burgeoning love story).
The primary focus being Prince Khemri, Nix engineers a scenario in which he finds himself required to rely entirely upon his own “smarts” without the back up of his genetic engineering and it is here that the narrative proves most interesting. The specific events of the scenario aside, it is once Khemri, or “Khem” as he is dubbed, is separated from the underlying support of the Empire that the character really comes into his own. None of the situations in which he finds he himself are “standard”, causing him to have to think “outside the box” and reflect upon what constitutes social interaction. Ultimately, Khemri is forced to contemplate what it means to be human and to confront the concepts of loss, life and death. For a 337 page book (paperback version), this is no mean feat, considering the manner in which Khemri is first presented to us. That Nix pulls it off in the main is just further evidence of his “chops” as a writer, if we still required to be convinced.
By the point at which we are advised of Prince Khemri’s impending third death and the narrative has effectively caught up with itself, the outcome for him is no longer clear. Nix keeps his readers guessing right up until the last few pages as to whether there will be a happy outcome for the Prince and whether he will ascend to the lofty heights of Emperor. Given Khemri’s thought process throughout these events, the final couple of paragraphs of the novel provide a suitable note on which to end matters and yet leave the reader with something to ponder beyond the words set out upon the page. Again, this speaks for what Nix is able to achieve within what remains a reasonably slight volume by modern standards, with the themes addressed much wider in scope than initially envisaged at the outset. As such, the audience, much like Khemri, encounters more than first bargained for upon their journey.