The False Prince, the first of The Ascendance Trilogy by Jennifer A. Nielsen, is an unexpected treat of a book. It departs from the trends of current popular Young Adult fiction, and is enthralling, interesting, and filled with suspense in its medieval world.
There is nothing better for a YA novel than a strong voice in the first person narration, and Nielsen captures that perfectly in the protagonist of Sage. The fourteen year old orphan is an outspoken child who puts his own well-being ahead of his peers, and there is a certain element of charm to his selfishness.
The novel follows a suspicious Sage after a nobleman called Conner takes him from his orphanage, and the realisation that three other boys of similar build and colouring were also taken from other orphanages. Conner reveals that Sage and the other boys will be competing against each other and only one of them to satisfy Conner's expectations will be allowed to live. Sage and the other discover that Conner is one of the few people who know the King, Queen and Crown Prince of Carthya have died, and he intends to place one of them on the throne as the King's youngest son, Jaron.
Placing Prince Jaron, previously thought to have died in a pirate attack, on the throne would allow Conner to control the kingdom and rise to a level within the court that he could not hold when the former king was in place.
Torn between wanting to live and not wanting to be Conner's pawn, Sage rebels both against Conner and his fellow orphans as he attempts to balance the need to play along and fight Conner every step of the way.
Sage's voice is a strong one, likeable and relatable with enough angst and rebellion that makes it hard to forget he is only fourteen years old. The web of the characters and their loyalties is tangled and complex as Sage struggles to work out who to trust and who not to. For all the adventure and mystery of this fictional world, and the unfortunate childhood Sage describes, he is a starkly realistic teenager to read.
The False Prince should be cliché and boring, an orphan boy replacing a long lost prince in a web of politics and lies. Instead, the novel is riveting, with suspense building on almost every page through Sage's words.
His rebellious attitude matched with his street smarts means Sage illuminates the plot into something brilliant and intriguing as he makes mistakes, stands by his decisions, and tries to forge alliances as much as he fails to impress those around him.
Although a tad predictable in places, The False Prince makes up for those through slow build-up of the novel, with enough treachery and mystery to keep you on the edge of the seat as Sage delves deeper into Conner's scheme.
The climax of the novel is gratifying, both through Sage's perspective and the reader's, as all of Conner and Sage's actions finally culminate in court before the conclusion of the novel hints at what is to come in the sequel.
The False Prince is a gem in the YA genre, heralding back to the fantasy epic, despite the lack of magic, though its medieval action and adventure, and the romantic allure of a world so complex and different.