The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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This week’s theme is books that won the Early and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Cybil, when I was one of the Round 2 judges. First up, from 2013:

false princeThe False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, 2012.

In the fantasy medieval country of Carthya, 15 year-old Sage and three other orphan boys are purchased by Conner and taken to his estate away from the city. Conner is one of the King’s regents and has come up with a desperate plan to prevent civil war breaking out in the country – one of these boys will masquerade as the long missing Prince Jaron. The boys must compete against each other in learning the ways of royalty, and Conner will make his choice in two weeks.

I love the complexity and ambiguity of the characters, Sage especially. He is a charismatic and flawed narrator who does not let the reader in on all he knows. I found Sage’s voice really appealing – snarky and unpredictable – and voice is always an important element for me. I also found Connor to be intriguing – he genuinely believe he is doing the right thing for Carthya, even if his methods are questionable.

The False Prince is reminiscent of Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief (2005) both in terms of its setting and in the unreliability of its narrator. However, despite The Thief’s many virtues, kid appeal is not one of them; so it’s great to have The False Prince to fill that niche.

The plot is packed with adventure and intrigue, and includes several surprises along the way before reaching a satisfyingly action-packed conclusion, leaving the reader ready for the rest of the, sadly rather disappointing, trilogy.

The Scourge by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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the-scourgeThe Scourge by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, 2016.

I have really enjoyed The Mark of the Thief series, and quite liked, though not as much as many did, the historical fiction A Night Divided. But my favorite JAN by far is The False Prince, and I’m excited to say that The Scourge is almost as good in some ways and even better in that it’s a one-off!!!

Like The False Prince, the setting is an imaginary country in a sort of 16th/17th century. This time, the country is Keldan, with the population acrimoniously divided into town dwellers and the River People. The country is being ravaged by the Scourge, an incurable plague, which has so far only hit the towns. But when River People Ani and Weevil are picked up to be tested, it’s discovered that they are both infected and they are sent to Attic Island – a colony for Scourge sufferers that nobody ever leaves.

Ani is our narrator and is a typically feisty Nielsen protagonist – one who just can’t keep her mouth closed or her head down. Though not quite a female version of my beloved False Prince Sage/Jarod with his delicious snark and unreliability, it’s good to have a female action hero and one who can lead, as well as just get herself in and out of scrapes. Weevil (terrible name – sounds like a Disney sidekick) is the cooler headed of the two, and is also a love interest.

The plot rips along, and though I could see the big twist coming, it was a good one and well-executed. There is a balanced mix of tension and action, and the backdrop of the tension between the two Keldan cultures gives an interesting overlay of social injustice.

And did I say it all wraps up in one book? Hooray. The downside is that the support characters don’t really have room to develop, and it would be nice to have seen more of Della, the initially snooty townie sent to the colony with Ani.

This is JAN at her peak and I would happily press this into the hands of any middle school reader.

Thanks to Scholastic and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.