Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What You Want and What You Get

When I was in graduate school, I took a seminar where part of the course obligation was to review the book that we read each week. One of the things that the professor told us, early on, has stuck with me ever since: Review the book that you read, not the book you wish that the author had written. This advice has stuck with me because it was one of the things that has most helped me see the difference between a book I like, and a book that is good – it gave me the ability to recognize a good book, even if I don’t necessarily like it. It’s a distinction that I think also applies to character – a character can be incredibly well-written, and still not be likeable.

Prince Khemri, the protagonist of Garth Nix’s new book, A Confusion of Princes, is a prat. He is a teenage boy who thinks he is a special snowflake, and worse yet, actually is. He has to be. Princes (a gender-neutral term) are made special – augmented with tek and training – until they are superhuman. Princes are also functionally immortal. While they can be killed, death is rarely permanent for them.
Beyond his specialness, on the day of his investiture as a Prince, Khemri finds out he is even more special than he thought he was. He has Been Chosen. He has a Destiny. Powerful people have taken an interest in him. It sounds like the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a teenage boy, and since A Confusion of Princes is told in first person, that’s what it reads as, too.

Which sounds like it might be horrible, but Nix is very good at what he’s doing here, and A Confusion of Princes is a smart book. Nix is using Khemri to reverse the expected trope – this isn’t a book about a normal boy who wants to be extraordinary, this is a book about an extraordinary boy who wants to become more so, and then wants something else altogether. And, as unlikeable as Khemri is in the beginning of the book, the voice of the character is perfect.

Prince Khemri sounds and behaves exactly like someone who knows he’s superhumanly special would. More importantly, he tells his story exactly like a Prince would – he is, quite clearly, the most important character in his own narrative. This meant that, on more than one occasion, Khemri didn’t tell me the part of the story I most wanted to know – there were characters who disappeared from the narrative, moments of plot that I wanted to wallow in that he skipped over. This isn’t poor writing on Nix’s part; rather it is Nix writing the story exactly the way Khemri would tell it. We see what is important to Khemri, we linger in the things that matter to him.

For most of A Confusion of Princes, I didn’t like Khemri. But I never stopped being interested in his story, and I’m deeply impressed that Nix’s writing is good enough that I can say both of those things.

By Kat Howard