That bald man, Mott, and his companion, Cregan, in the employ of one, Bevin Connor, are collecting orphan boys, four to be exact. These young men, Sage, Tobias, Roden and Latamer are told nothing about why they have been taken. Slowly, carefully, with intent Connor reveals within two weeks one of them will be selected to play a role lasting the remainder of their lifetime; the others will be silenced.
Connor is one of twenty regents in the kingdom of Carthya, a kingdom in serious trouble from within and without. What the regents know, but of which the general populous is unaware, is that the king, queen and heir have been murdered. A younger son, Jaron, four years earlier was believed killed at sea by pirates, although his body has never been found. The conniving Connor, master planner and puppeteer, will be presenting one of them at court as the missing prince.
Intense studies of history and reading, horseback riding, swordsmanship and all things princely ensues, each orphan knowing their very lives depend on being selected. Tension between them mounts to a fever pitch; who will take a life to save his own? Defiant, unwilling to bend his will to Connor's, it seems unlikely Sage will assume the part needed to be played.
It is through Sage's first person narrative the intrigue is peeled away layer by layer as the pieces in a puzzle, no one is wholly privy to, are put in place. Day to day survival, the balance between life and death, is kept in check by secrets; even Farthenwood, residence of Connor and temporarily for the boys, conceals. As the deadline approaches plot twists increase and surprise, urging the reader to consume pages with lightning-like speed
Nielsen's storyline is tight, details of setting painting a vivid picture of place and time and peopled with characters readers will either admire or detest for forgivable or fatal flaws. Her technique of ending a chapter with a telling piece of dialogue or predictive thought is addictive; you can not stop.
Humor, tinged with irony, sometimes even a little dark, emerges precisely when needed.
Here are some examples.
About an hour later, the wagon stopped in a small town I'd been to once before. It was named Gelvins, although as small as it was, I'm not sure it deserved any name. Gelvins was more like an outpost than a town, with only a few shops on the street and a dozen pathetic excuses for homes. Carthyan homes were normally well built and sturdy, but Gelvins was poor and its farms dry. A sturdy home was a luxury few here could dream of, much less afford to build. Most of these thin wooden structures looked like they would be finished in a stiff windstorm.
My heart pounded so loudly in my ears that I barely heard him. All I knew was that he would not get that rock even if my life depended on it. And I suspected that it did.
"Take him," Connor said. Mott and Cregan grabbed each of my arms and literally dragged me, kicking and screaming, out the door.
Graves was gone when Mott shook me awake some time later. "He called you incorrigible," Mott said. "Honestly, Sage, are you trying to fail?"
"I already told you I could read a little. This morning was a waste of my time."
"I though it was great." Roden sounded happier than I'd ever heard him. "I never expected to be able to read, and Master Graves said he'll have me in a children's reader by tomorrow."
"Great. Let me know what the children's reader has to say about impersonating a prince."
The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen will, without a doubt, be brought to the Newbery discussion table. As a read aloud it is unbeatable for its non-stop action, cliff-hanger plot ploys and fine-tuned characterizations. Count me as one of those readers waiting impatiently in line for Book Two.