Australia's megastar young adult author Garth Nix excites the imaginations of adults as well as young readers, with his startlingly original world-building. His Abhorsen Chronicles features necromancy vs. technology in a sorta alternate version of World War I. The recently reprinted Shade's Children presents a future where for your fourteenth birthday, instead of a cake, you get turned into a soulless killbot.
And Nix's latest book, A Confusion of Princes, is a fast-paced adventure, aimed at an audience that recent publishing trends may be neglecting. Get ready for explodey action and passion, in a star-spanning Empire. Thrill to sufficiently advanced technology, plus wheels within wheels, and plans within plans. Spoilers ho!
Young adult science fiction is a huge lucrative gateway drug for new genre readers. Unprecedented numbers of teens and adults regularly snap up the latest Post-Apocalyptic Dystopian Romance. This is mostly great — except when it leads to authors cranking out more of the same. Publishers know a good thing when they see it, but they don't bother to look much further. Nearly all YA SF is saturated with cookie-cutter stories of True Love in Ruined Cities or Fuller Domes.
So it's refreshing to see a new YA novel revisiting a different classic science-fictional setting, and with a bit more Blowing Stuff Up.
Nix dedicated A Confusion of Princes to Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton, who wrote the kind of bildungsroman* that inspired so many science fiction fans and authors. It is also heavily inspired by computer games and was developed alongside an MMORPG. Nix described the RPG, Imperial Galaxy, as "... kind of the most expensive and least useful piece of marketing for a book ever done."
You may read more about the game, his background and writing process in this excellent interview.
While quite original, Confusion pleasantly reminded me of my favorite Space Operas — particularly those I will jokingly dub "epaulettepunk". Here we have Byzantine schemes fought with miraculous super-science and age-old cunning, with the fate of the galaxy at stake. Let's hope this novel entices young readers to explore the empires in Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan, Pournelle's CoDominium, and of course Frank Herbert.
Princes is a tasty, snack-sized Dune without questionable fillers and additives. New Space Opera, with its emphasis on posthumans, is also in full effect, but this Empire is the political and philosophical opposite of Iain M. Banks' Culture. It might be a Mirror Universe where the Empire of Azad gained supremacy. Confusion imagines a spectacularly horrible future for mankind, that's symptomatic of our present anxieties. Its closest neighbors might be the Dread Empire's Fall trilogy by Walter Jon Williams, or the Succession duology by Nix's fellow YA darling and occasional Antipodean Scott Westerfeld**. But again, in A Confusion of Princes, it's the differences that dazzle, new riffs that Space Opera connoisseurs might make their lidar monocles pop.
In Confusion, it's the mid-27th Century, but probably not of the Gregorian calendar. The Empire rules more than seventeen million systems with trillions of subjects, mostly of human stock. Although the Empire is constantly challenged, its iron grip is secured by the equal mastery of Imperial sciences: Mektek, Bitek, and Psitek.
Our protagonist Khemri has just taken his place as one of the ten million Princes of the Empire. Human infants of any gender that meet a specific genetic requirement are volunteered by anonymous parents, at weapon-point, to become Princes. The first decade of Khemri's childhood was spent in tanks of goo while his body and mind were cyborged, uplifted, and indoctrinated to become a superhuman satrap, a living extension of Imperial will and power.
Aside from mind-programmed slaves, his only personal contact has been with the Priests. They serve and advise Princes, manage the trinity of Teks, and run a fearsome bureaucracy like the eunuchs of Old China, but augmented up the ying-yang. Blue fluid pulses behind transparent panels in a priest's skull boosting cognitive abilities (Spice-infused coolant or molten Louie-Bloo Otter Pops?). The priesthood are separated into many orders each one representing a different Aspect of the omnipotent, unseen Emperor: The Aspect of the Inquiring Intelligence, the Nobel Warrior, the Cold Calculator, the Kindly Gardener and so on. There might be Aspects of the Snappy Dresser or Avuncular Chuckle, but perhaps not. Through psitek, Priests and Princes are connected to the distributed network of the Imperial Mind which coordinates and watches them all. A Prince might order her Priests to block surveillance, but surely not for any mischief.
The newly ascended Prince Khemri looks forward to a long sybaritic life surrounded by cringing underlings. He imagines getting his own warship and being all heroic and Blowing Stuff Up. Eventually he will take the Throne and rule the Galaxy, right? Sadly, this is not the case. His glorious reign nearly winds up lasting mere seconds, but for the intervention of his just-appointed Master of Assassins, Haddad.
The Priest of the Aspect of the Shadowed Blade informs his Highness that the other 9,999,999 Princes have similar ambitions to ultimate power. Every twenty years, a new Emperor is chosen through an unknown process — and there can be, to coin a phrase, only One. The next succession is only two years away and Khemri's superpowered peers have all the experience. All the others are banded together in Houses, which are more like mutual non-aggression pacts and campus frats than Atreides or Harkonnen. The cosmically gormless Prince Khemri is quite understandably taken aback. There was nothing in his intensive training and education to prepare him for this massively murderous sibling rivalry. Right then, Haddad, old bean. What's to be done about it?
The calm, deferential, but always controlling Master of Assassins resembles Thufir Hawat from Dune — but even more Jeeves, that consummate Gentleman's Gentleman from P.G. Wodehouse's Wooster and Jeeves books. His young master is an arrogant, spoiled twit with a godlike sense of entitlement, but Khemri is positively affable in contrast with some of the other Princes we encounter. Absolutely horrid oiks, I'm afraid. Khemri heroically struggles to overcome his own design specs, and falters most humanly. This pair may be the closest to a posthuman Jeeves and Wooster since Charlie Stross' "Trunk and Disorderly". A Confusion of Princes was not intended as farce*** — and indeed Mr. Stross will attest to the impossibility of matching Plumb's comic genius. In another telling similarity, Princes address their priests as Uncle or Aunt. Nix has imbued Khemri and Haddad with that wonderful master/servant/student /teacher relationship. Haddad's lines rang in my head with Stephan Fry's perfect intonation, and now the same will happen to you. You are most welcome.
Just as Khemri comes to grips with the realization that he may not be the next Emperor, it is revealed he may yet have a Special Destiny. That's tough on any lad's burgeoning sense of humility and empathy. Fortunately the other plotting Princes, huge conspiracies, hegemonic alien parasites, and space pirates might keep him grounded. He develops a certain rapport with the Imperial bitek drones, human-insect chimerical warriors with rather limited conversational skills. And this, in turn, may give him an affinity for other lesser lifeforms — namely baseline human beings.
We also explore other fascinating examples of tek with varying levels of sentience, including: Wormhole drives operated by dedicated psitek Priests; One-person reentry craft resembling manta rays grown on demand; Mind-programmed slaves that are used for all sorts of unsettling purposes including museum dioramas and a very elaborate Hogan's Alley.
Khemri encounters a shadowy agency called Adjustment (more like Frank Herbert's BuSab than Special Circumstances of the Culture), goes on a walkabout far from the comforts and without abilities he took for granted. (What the hell, I can't smell dark matter? This blows!), and faces treachery and danger in spectacular set pieces. He also dies a few times*****, and of course finds and loses True Love.
A Confusion of Princes is an imaginative, passionate thrill-ride with rapid-fire pacing. My only real regret is the book is perhaps meant for the attention-spans of the young or heavily caffeinated. The plot blasts ahead with such an unnaturally accelerated pace, I barely had time to enjoy all of the brilliant world-building. The perfect audience for this, my 15 year old godson, probably gave up reading this review in the third paragraph. Though by no means an equal to some of the great Space Operas I mentioned previously, it makes an enticing gateway to those vast stellar Empires and awakens that sense of wonder needed to conquer the galaxy.
A Confusion of Princes is available at your local independent bookstore.
Grey_Area sells books under the name Chris Hsiang with Books Inc. in the San Francisco Bay Area. He walks without rhythm. Follow him at #greyareareads.
* One of my favorite German words along with Gedankenexperiment, Bratwurst, and Luftballon.
** The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds may be Westerfeld's only non-YA novels***. I know it doesn't pay as well, but wish he would return to the Succession Universe.
*** I suppose these would be called A novels.
**** For the perfect Epaulettepunk Comedy I direct my friends to hunt down the criminally out-of-print Drake Maijstral trilogy by the great Walter Jon Williams.
***** It's not a damn spoiler. It's in the opening sentence!