Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on April 13, 2014
First, at the risk of sounding like a gushing manic, let me say that this book is amazing and wonderful. Seriously, it is on my list of absolute favorite reads ever. And I read a lot.
Anyway, with that out of the way, I'll get on to the plot. The story takes place in Carthya, a kingdom with a problem. A rather large one. The King, Queen, and Crown Prince have been murdered, leaving the country both kingless and heirless. This basically leaves the throne open for anyone with the strength to take it, and there is more than one noble who believes that he has that power; or at least who would like to try anyway. And that means that civil war is all but certain. Nor will the kingdoms at Carthya's borders let such an opportunity, such a weakness, pass them by. Because of this and various other reasons, the news has so far been kept from the general populace, but it's only a matter of time before it all comes to a head.
Enter Lord Bevin Conner, a self-proclaimed patriot with a plan to avoid all of this. You see, although the King, Queen, and Crown Prince are dead, there was, once, a younger prince. Several years ago, his ship was attacked and sunk by pirates. There were no survivors. However, although everyone knows that the young prince must have died in that attack, his body never washed ashore, so there is, technically, the slight possibility that he lived. At least, there is no one to say that he didn't. Conner's plan is simple: Find a boy to pretend to be the prince and put him on the throne. In aid of this, he scours the kingdom's orphanages for boys of the right age and appearance, brings them to live with him, and begins to train them. In two weeks, he will choose the one he believes most capable of becoming, well, the false prince. The others, the ones that don't get chosen? Well, they are too dangerous, they know too much...
One of the boys pulled into this scheme is Sage, the main character. Ok, sure, he's been accused (not without cause) of making his way through theft and lies, but underneath all of that, he isn't actually a bad person. He has absolutely no desire for a throne and has every intention of fighting Conner to the end. For while Conner and the other boys seem to be able to convince themselves that 'desperate times call for desperate measures' and all that (of course, it doesn't hurt that they all see something to gain through it, too), Sage sees it for the treason it is. But what choice does he have? If he refuses to go along with it, if he doesn't get chosen, then he will die. And if there's one thing Sage learnt on the streets and in the orphanage, it was to survive. Can he do it? Can he win? Without completely giving in to Conner and his plan?
Personally, I think the plot alone is enough to hold anyone's interest. It is well-paced and action-packed. Yes, the whole 'competition that only one can survive' thing smacks of The Hunger Games, but that is the only resemblance. Since the 'competition' doesn't consist of the boys actually killing one another, although death is a definite possibility, the story is less dark. True, Sage has a knack for getting into trouble and accumulates multiple, mostly minor, non-accidental injuries over the course of the book, but I don't think those scenes, although tense, will unduly trouble more than the youngest readers.
But, it's Sage who makes the story. He had me hooked from the first paragraph. Running away from a knife-wielding butcher, a stolen roast under one arm, is funny enough, perhaps because it is such an unexpected thing for someone to do. But then to comment that it is harder than it looks, "More slippery than I'd anticipated...I vowed to get it wrapped next time. Then steal it." That is just flat-out hilarious. Sage is clever, witty, and delightfully antagonistic. Not to mention stubborn. He doesn't exactly get dragged into the scheme kicking and screaming, but he certainly ensures that it is neither easy nor pleasant for those forcing him along. If his quick comebacks and asides don't make you laugh more than once, there is something seriously wrong with you. Sage is a complex and intriguing character, with a very interesting way of telling the story. And I loved how his fight isn't just external, but includes internal turmoil as well.
This book is simply written enough to appeal to younger readers, yet it is also complex and contains enough twists and turns to appeal to adults (I ought to know. I am one). I would highly recommend reading this book. It's clever, intriguing, fast-paced, and funny; what more could anyone ask for?
For those interested, I've also listened to the audiobook. The narrator does an amazing job.