A Confusion of Princes
Author: Garth Nix
This is Young Adult interstellar science-fiction, in the tradition of Robert A. Heinlein and Andre Norton, two classic YA s-f authors to whom this book is dedicated. I grew up devouring the YA s-f of Heinlein and Norton in my teens. How close does A Confusion of Princes come? Very – and current to the 2010s, not the 1950s, too!
“I have died three times, and three times been reborn, though I am not yet twenty in the old Earth years by which it is still the fashion to measure time.” (p. 1)
Khemri is a Prince of the galaxy-spanning Empire. This is not as much a biological title as a political and technological one. The Empire, with tens of thousands of worlds and a population of multi-quintillions, has ten million Princes (male and female) to help run it. To serve efficiently, the Princes are educated from infancy to rule and are turned into cyborgs; biologically and psychically enhanced, including a connection to the Imperial Mind so that, if killed, they can be reborn.
But technologically enhanced ruling abilities (“techno-wizardry”) do not preclude personal ambition. By tradition, the Emperor abdicates every twenty years, naming one of the ten million Princes as his heir. Some, if not most, of the Princes are jockeying for position to become that heir. Young and naïve Prince Khemri quickly discovers that one or more of his fellow Princes is out to assassinate him – nothing personal; just eliminating one more competitor.
This is a novel of character development. Unfortunately, to develop into an admirably complex and self-assured character, Khemri has to start out as shallow and superficial, arrogant about his lofty status. Nix keeps his readers through Khemri’s unpleasant beginnings by painting his colorful background, a galaxy of a glittering upper class of seemingly-perfect supermen and a lower class of benevolently-ruled peasants, plus exotic alien enemies; and by presenting the story as a flashback, with Khemri wryly acknowledging his original naïvete.
The education to rule is based on a thorough understanding of the Imperial technology, which is divided into three classes, the mechanical Mektek, the biological Bitek, and the mental Psytek, each of which is managed and controlled by a priesthood that worships different Aspects of the divine Emperor – which the reader will recognize is a cadre of scientific bureaucrats disguised as a religion. The reality is shown by the fact that the first of his/her court that a Prince meets, upon becoming a Prince on his eighteenth birthday, is his Master of Assassins. The main duty of a Master of Assassins is not to assassinate anyone, but to keep his brand-new Prince from being assassinated by his nine-plus million peers.
A Confusion of Princes follows Khemri from his eighteenth-birthday investiture, expecting to become an all-powerful and all-important Prince of the Empire, through his introduction to Haddad, his Master of Assassins; Haddad’s immediate saving him from an assassination attempt; their flight to the Naval Academy of the Imperial Navy on the world of Kwanantil Nine where Khemri can connect to the Imperial Mind; Khemri’s year as a Naval cadet, and more. His experiences are fast-paced, colorful, and humbling as he learns more about what life in the Empire is really like. At the same time, he gradually realizes that his experiences are more than those of an average Prince. “So Haddad was a very senior Master of Assassins indeed. Why had he been assigned to me? And why had I been sponsored to join the Imperial Mind by an arch-priest, the head of an Aspect I’d never even heard about, read about, or suspected existed?” (p. 49)
Spoiler alert: it later turns out that the Empire has a secret service of “Adjustors” within the ten million Princes, to secretly police them and keep them from getting out of control. This “seventh service” is what Khemri is being groomed for. But the rigorous testing includes surviving for a year as an ordinary human, without any Princely powers.
During that time, disguised as Khem, a Fringe trader, he meets Raine Gryphon, a communication specialist in an interstellar wartime situation, and her family. She is the first woman that he comes to know other than a Prince’s sex servant or a fellow Prince. “It was an inexplicable, emotional response, one I had never felt before. I didn’t like it, because it felt weak, but somehow I couldn’t stop it. I tried to tell myself that she was just like a mind-programmed servant of my household, but she wasn’t. They were all the same. She was … different. More interesting … and she was different from all the humans I’d met in my training. I’d gotten on well enough with some of them, but I’d certainly never felt like I needed to protect them.” (p. 211)
At the end of the year, Khemri has passed his test and becomes an Adjustor, which he learns puts him on an inside track to become the next Emperor. But after a year as an ordinary human, with the freedom from the rigidly stratified life of a Prince, full of ultimate power and pleasure but having to always fear assassination, Khemri must decide whether he prefers the perquisites of Princedom or the liberty of a commoner. A Confusion of Princes is a swiftly-moving, vividly exotic adventure of the far future for adolescents (especially boys) and adults.