Nielsen’s winsome journey into a medieval-style storyland is really more middle reader than YA. Or is it “intermediate reader” they call it? Whatever. From a kid’s point of view, this prince, false or otherwise, can’t help but be a five-star one. It takes you back, it does. Remember when you were new to the magic of reading, when pages flipped themselves, when you were so hungry to see what happened next you’d go without meals and sleep? Here Nielsen pulls it off in the most cliché-ridden land of all — the turf between “Once Upon a Time” and “They Lived Happily Ever After” (surely you’ve been there — Triple A discounts apply).
That’s right. This is the Middle Ages of our childhoods. Kings and Queens. Lords and Ladies. Pages and Squires. Magnificient castles and humble taverns. Everything but a dwarf (they were all used up in the Game of Thrones series).
In the opening pages, our protagonist, young Sage, is plucked from his orphanage by Conner, a regent of the late great King Eckbert, now dead along with his wife Erin and his elder son and heir Darius. Well, dead doesn’t quite give you the whole story. Poisoned, actually. And as the Kingdom of Carthya is now on the brink of civil or possibly uncivil (from outside its borders) war, Conner needs a lookalike for the late king’s younger son, Jaron, who went missing on a ship attacked by pirates four years earlier.
Still with me? OK, then. Conner’s posse has gathered three boys, including Sage, who are reasonable lookalikes for the younger prince. He plans to train the lads into serving as a “false prince” to save the kingdom. Two caveats: the winning “prince” will only be a front for Conner, the true power behind the throne. And the two losers in this royal sweepstakes will be killed. Loose lips, you see. Very inconvenient.
And that is the main driver. These boys are competing not just for a dangerous pretender’s role under a ruthless man, but for their very lives. It’s like a 3-way, close-quarters Hunger Games. And Sage, a typical wise guy punk who’s learned a thing or two about picking pockets in his street days, doesn’t play by the rules very well. He’s Oliver with attitude. Oliver time-warped to Sword in the Stone days.
As the plot moves inexorably toward its conclusion, Nielsen whips up some court intrigue, close calls, hand-to-hand combats, and, of course, twists and shouts. It’s that young reader special, all right: a plot-driven book that moves briskly, with the late king’s castle as its ultimate destiny. All the regents are gathering there to name a new king. Trouble is, other pretend princes are converging on the castle, too. Nothing excites villains and mountebanks like a power vacuum, I always say. And you didn’t really expect Conner to be original in his schemes, did you?
In a word: fun. In three words: for reluctant readers. And (surprise!) it has a sequel, which I’ve purchased in hardcover, The Runaway King. Probably it will start, “Once upon a time…,” and end “… and they would have lived happily ever after if series didn’t come in three’s,” but who cares? With dialogue and action like this, the greater good — false or not — rules the day.