Monday, May 6, 2013

Reading Notes: A Confusion of Princes

This review is the 5th of 11 books in my Aurealis finalist reading challenge. Next will be a review of Daniel O'Malley's The Rook, which will be published tomorrow.

Garth Nix's stand-alone space opera, A Confusion of Princes, has the distinction of being the first book by a male author that I have read this year. I've been doing the Australian Women Writers Challenge since January, plus the Stella Awards longlist challenge, and, coincidentally, the titles I cherrypicked off the Miles Franklin and Nebula longlists happened to be by women as well, as did the first 4 finalists from the Aurealis list that I read.

Altogether, between the reading challenges and my relaxation-reading, which has been Dorothy L Sayers, Laurie King and Elizabeth Peters, I've read 22 books on the trot by women. An interesting thing to note is that these books have been stylistically, thematically and in every other way dissimilar from each other. It turns out that women are not a hive mind, and fiction produced by women is as diverse as ... fiction produced by men. Who would've thunk it?

ANYWAY, enough of that, on to A Confusion of Princes. 

Garth Nix is an author I've enjoyed in the past, although I'd hesitate to call him a favourite, and I expected a well-crafted, contained story to emerge from this book. I was not disappointed; in the story of Prince Khemri, and the galactic empire he inhabits, Nix provides an admiraby tidy, readable tale that never sacrifices clarity for cleverness.

The main premise of this book, which is told in the first person, is the existence of a vast galactic empire ruled by a caste of Princes, both male and female, who, in communication with the Galactic Mind (the emperor), govern the affairs of ordinary people and co-ordinate defences against alien Big Bads, the Sad-Eyes, Naknuks and Deaders. The empire is ruled by a combination of Bitek, Mektek and Psitek (biological / genetic manipulation, advanced mechanical science and mind powers), all of which Nix expertly blends into the story in a way that seems effortless and natural.

One of the key plot points and philosophical devices in the story is that the Princes, if they are in communication with the Galactic Mind at the moment of their death, can be, and usually are, reborn into a fresh body. Nix makes a lot, justfiably, of what this might mean for the Princes' attitude to life, death, "normal" people, and conflict. How would the knowledge - not the hope, not the suspicion, but the knowledge - that death is not the end affect a person? How would it shape them, and how might it warp them? Nix explores these questions with Khemri's journey, along with the related one - does the potential for rebirth come at too high a cost if it means one cannot really live and love with fervour?

I was not surprised to learn that, like fellow nominee And All the Stars, this book is also labelled as a YA title. As well as being hopeful, the book is also quite action-driven and lacks the kind of cynicism about love and relationships that seems a requirement for many adult novels. Khemri's dawning realisation that his privileged life as one of the thousands of "Princes" (a job title, not a hereditary position) is also emotionally barren is explored really well, with a great delicacy of touch. And if the resolution of the plot (involving another character called Raine - although a rather different Raine to The Last City's spectral breed!) is a little bit pat, a little bit obvious - well, it's forgiveable in the context of what is a beautifully crafted, engaging story.

All in all, this is a really good book. It reads as an expert, polished, well-built story, with enough metaphysics to make it interesting, but enough plot to make it enjoyable. I wasn't a mad fan of the ending, but nonetheless I'd recommend this one to space opera / YA fans.

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