The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen

This is a really hard book for me to review. Not because I didn’t enjoy it (which I did), but because I think the discussion about it needs to involve a major spoiler. Without discussing the spoiler, the review doesn’t get the chance to say a whole lot of substance (in my view), so I’m going to bite the bullet and weave the spoiler in. Not right at the beginning – I’ll warn you in bold before I start discussing it, so if you’d like to avoid the spoiler, you’re safe reading the first part.
Fourteen year old Sage is an orphan in the country of Carthya. He’s got no family and no money, although he does have a home in a sad little orphanage run by a woman who doesn’t like him (or any of the orphans, really). He gets by in life by stealing: food, money, whatever he can get his hands on. Except one day, someone steals him. That someone is a noble by the name of Conner, and he has big plans for Sage and three other boys he’s taken.
Prince Jaron of Carthya, the heir to the throne, disappeared during a pirate attack at sea a few years ago and has been presumed dead since. Conner intends to make one of his boys into the picture of the prince and place him on the throne. All in the name of patriotism of course: with no apparent heir to the throne, the late king’s advisers are chomping at the bit to be named the next ruler, and it could send the country into civil war, which would in turn make Carthya susceptible to attack by neighboring countries.
None of the boys resemble the dead prince too closely, but Conner is convinced that with the proper training, clothing, and hair dye, he can pull it off. Of course, only one of the boys can be his choice. As to what would happen to the others – well, Conner can’t let anyone talk about his plans to anyone else, can he? Sage isn’t sure if he’s down with this competition, but when the alternative is death, there really isn’t a choice.
I’m an avid review-reader. Before I pick up a book, I go to Goodreads and see what people are saying about it. Sometimes it will convince me to give the book a pass, and sometimes it will make me more excited to read it. In this case, reading reviews helped me spot the spoiler, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. I don’t read reviews with spoilers deliberately, and none of the reviews I read actually revealed the spoiler, but they revealed enough. Really, all they had to do was tell me that the book reminded them of The Thief.
If you’ve read The Thief and you’ve read this far in my review, I bet you can call the ending of The False Prince without even reading the first page. I sure could. Every time I think about this book, I wonder if I would have discovered the twist at the end if I had not read that comparison, and I honestly can’t say. Perhaps. But it would have been harder, it would have taken me longer, and I wouldn’t have been so sure until I got there.
When I first read The Thief, the twist ending is what elevated it from a book I really liked to one I would remember forever. It was all good, but the real joy came in re-reading and determining just where Turner had dropped those hints. In The False Prince, I looked for those hints right from page 1, and they seemed so easy to spot. It makes me struggle to determine the true quality of the book – is the twist a gimmick because it’s predictable and too similar to another middle grade fantasy novel? Or is my experience with The Thief clouding my judgment?
I don’t know the answer to those questions. What I do know is that despite my foreknowledge, I still raced through the book and was completely engaged the entire time. Even though I knew how it would end, I wanted to see how Nielsen got us there. So I can safely say it’s a good book, but I don’t know about great. It’s got plenty of excitement, a lot of action, and a good voice in Sage. Sage’s fellow prince contenders are quite well drawn, as are the two female ancillary characters, though they don’t get a lot of page time. And I definitely plan on reading the sequels. Nielsen can’t use this same trick in them, so I’m interested to see where the story goes.
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  1. akajill says

    I wondered the same thing. I wasn't far into this book when I realized what was going on. Had I not read The Thief and re-read it several more tims after that (Oh, how I love that book!), would I have realized it? My conclusion was that the writing would have given it away. It simply isn't as clever as The Thief, though it wants to be, so I think I might well have.

    • says

      I think you're right. But my reading of The Thief is colored by my age at the time, too (I was a kid when I read it). I plan to re-read The Thief (I haven't since then!) and see how they compare to each other as an adult.

  2. says

    I have not read The Thief (I know, I know! I do plan to), and the bookseller who booktalked The False Prince to me didn't make that comparison, so I didn't have that influence. However, as soon as he described the premise (actually, he may have said there was a twist), I thought, "Okay, obviously, x is going to happen." Then I spent the whole book hoping that it wouldn't be x — that it would be something less obvious, more original. And then it wasn't. Moreover, I was disappointed by the way that x was concealed and revealed. An unreliable narrator is one thing, but this felt like outright trickery. Which, I suppose, it was. I still really enjoyed the book. I thought the voice was absolutely delightful, and I enjoyed the plot. But I have to agree with your "good, not great" assessment. And I'm looking forward to seeing what comes next.

  3. Shannon says

    I had actually read The Thief a few weeks before The False Prince and while I would have seen the twist if someone had thrown out that comparison, I didn't see it coming as I was reading. Not sure what that says about me as an observant reader. 😛

    I like False Prince a bit more than The Thief. I teach middle school and I think TFP is a bit easier for kids to digest.

  4. says

    Interesting to think about — I suppose you could ask somebody else to read it and then ask at the end if they thought it was gimmicky, but that'd be hard to pull off…

  5. says

    I have read The Thief, but had not heard the comparisons between the two books before starting The False Prince. It did become apparent what the twist would be, but I thought that Ms. Nielsen did a wonderful job with the voice and I did enjoy the plot overall. I think I may have used the words "Gen-like" character when describing The False Prince to a fellow librarian.

    I do agree with Shannon that The False Prince would be easier than The Thief for some Middle Grade readers, especially those that don't read a lot of fantasy. When they finished, they could then go on to read The Thief – that would be my hope anyway!

  6. says

    I had pretty much the same response to this one! I really enjoyed it, but found it completely predictable, and really struggled with my feelings because of that for some time. I finally determined that because it is written so smartly, it couldn't have really meant to be a blindside. The credit has to be given to the readers that they would know what was coming. I may be wrong, but I want to believe the best of this book, and so I'm not going to let myself think otherwise. 😛

  7. Anonymous says

    I hadn't read The Thief before this book and noone talked to me about the twist but I guessed it after reading the blurb, before starting the first page. I loved it though. Although the king's choice seems a little forced and unrealistic. Maybe we'll find out more about it in the second book. I'm an older reader though,and the more books you read the more you can guess the twists.

    After all the comparisons I'm reading The Thief now and loving it:)

  8. Anonymous says

    haha that was exactly me. I read the Thief as well and I knew from just reading the summary what was going to happen. And yeah, sadly I don't think i can properly evaluate the book because I feel like I would have enjoyed it a lot more if it had taken me by surprise. I looked for those hints since page one as well, and I also missed re-reading to find the hidden gems I'd missed. There were just too many similarities between the characters(tho that might not have been a bad thing), it's just that I was never surprised by anything he did. Good book, yes, but so hard to judge. However, over all, although the False Prince was a fantastic book, i'd say that The Thief was better. but still, yeah good story, it was definitely fun to read.

  9. says

    Actually, I read the False Prince first and had no idea about the spoiler until it was actually revealed. After hearing that it was similar to The Thief, I read that book too. But that was all the info I needed to figure out exactly what the 'twist' in the Thief actually was. Also, the name of the series – Queen's Thief – was a HUGE hint as to who Gen actually was. Did no one else notice this?

  10. says

    Actually, I read the False Prince first and had no idea about the spoiler until it was actually revealed. After hearing that it was similar to The Thief, I read that book too. But that was all the info I needed to figure out exactly what the 'twist' in the Thief actually was. Also, the name of the series – Queen's Thief – was a HUGE hint as to who Gen actually was. Did no one else notice this?

  11. says

    Reading your review was interesting because I had the opposite experience you did. I read The False Prince before I read The Thief, and did not realize what the spoiler was until it was revealed. After hearing that the two books were similar, I started reading The Thief and I guessed the twist in that book right away. And, honestly, a huge hint was the name of the series – The Queen's Thief – which to me completely pointed to Gen's real identity. Was I the only one who thought this?

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