Tower of the Hand

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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Jul 1, 2020, 9:00 AM ET
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If you're like me, you've had plenty of free time to read this year. But decent reading recommendations are hard to come by, harder still when the public library is closed and you're limited to the library's digital offerings. In my case, I learned to shrug off my normal finicky attitudes toward unknown authors and to embrace whatever book is readily available when I open up my ebook app, regardless of genre and target audience. (Though I do tend to check out the fantasy and sci-fi selections first.)

I've also started taking notes on my readings, paying particular attention to elements that might also appeal to my fellow A Song of Ice and Fire fans. Over the course of the summer I intend to present short, spoiler-free reviews of some of these books. Hopefully you'll find something that piques your interest. If not, I hope that you'll suggest a similar book that has entertained you.

Let me start with The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen.

The False Prince, book one of The Ascendance Series by Jennifer A. Nielsen, has a simple hook: Sage is one of three orphan boys being groomed to impersonate a long-lost dead prince of the kingdom of Carthya. Only one of them can win the high-stakes game, though, and his meager reward will be to become a pretender, a puppet king. That's still better than the alternative. The runners up can only win a ticket to the grave, where the secrets of the entire charade must be buried.

The premise of The False Prince actually reminded me of "The Hedge Knight," except in reverse; our protagonist must use his street smarts to pass as a respectable noble instead of the other way around. Sage is also something of a wiseass, a little bit older than Egg but a lot more jaded. Naturally his big mouth gets him into a lot of trouble, which is part of his charm. But, unlike "The Hedge Knight," The False Prince is aimed at younger readers, so the consequences of Sage's biggest risks -- while sometimes brutal -- are usually temporary and not as traumatizing as they probably should be.

Of course, the initial premise isn't sustainable over an entire three-book series. Nielsen clearly understood this and revised the story accordingly; each book retained much of the cast under different but familiar circumstances. Suffice it to say that there always seems to be some kind of undercover mission. Nevertheless, the first book is the best of the series. I was also going to credit The Ascendance "Trilogy" as being the only series I've read this year that's actually finished... except Nielsen recently announced a forthcoming sequel with perhaps more to come after that. I will say that the first three books as written offer a complete story with a satisfying conclusion.

Fun fact: Bryan Cogman, one of the best Game of Thrones writers, was originally hired by Paramount to adapt The False Prince as a movie. It never proceeded beyond that.

Since I doubt there's much discussion to have here about The False Prince itself, I invite you to comment on your favorite books about secret identities. Obviously George R. R. Martin enjoys a good character-in-disguise ruse, not just in "The Hedge Knight" but in ASOIAF, too, where the entire plot may or may not hinge on whether a certain character is secretly a Targaryen. But writers throughout history have employed this very common trope. Which authors have used it to its greatest effect?

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Warning: Discussions are not subject to scope. That is, commenters can and often do discuss events from the most recent A Song of Ice and Fire book and/or Game of Thrones episode.

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