Garth Nix

Allen & Unwin (2012)

ISBN: 978 1 74175 861 0

Reviewed by Jason Nahrung

The foundation of this YA space opera from Garth Nix in a proposed computer game is apparent, but well controlled and logical. What is a quest if not a series of challenges, each developing a strength and teaching a lesson?

For Khemri, those lessons can be lethal, and increasingly serve to acquaint him with what it means to be human, or rather, an everyday citizen. To think, that someone might sacrifice themselves for another, out of desire and not coercion…

Khemri is one of millions of enhanced, purpose-crafted princes who control the empire within a bureaucratic framework of priests under an overarching Imperial Mind. Nix’s universe utilises three core technologies: mechanical, biological and psychic. It’s a wonderfully drawn world, from its terminology to its weaponry and medical tech, communications and transport, to the computer game idea of respawning or resurrection, new Battlestar Galactica style, after death.

More telling is the role of propaganda and conditioning in the upbringing of the orphan princes, shaped using the three technologies into being cogs in the vast machine. All manner of power is owed to them, but the price – one they are barely if at all aware of – is their soul. To go out in the world, to encounter concepts of humour, of family, of love: that’s ground-breaking stuff for a nineteen-year-old raised to be little more than a weapon.

When Khemri is chosen for special duties for the Emperor, his star is in the ascendancy. The mission is not without risk, but given the final prize might be the position of emperor itself, well, the risk of final death is worthwhile. Nix opens the tale, told in retrospect, in gripping fashion:

I have died three times. And three times been reborn. Though I am not yet twenty in the old Earth years by which it is still the fashion to measure time.
This is the story of my three death, and my life between them.

That grip rarely relaxes as Khemri pursues his quest, one that leads to some stunning revelations about the kind of person he is and wants to be.

The Australian edition includes a short story featuring a secondary character, the Master Assassin Haddad. It’s a pleasant bonus that fills in a hole, so to speak, in the history of this enigmatic character, as much a prisoner of duty as anyone.

A Confusion of Princes is grand space opera with a very human heart at its core.

Game over.