I read The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen awhile back. It had been hyped up for me by various blog friends, most of whom commented positively on the similarities between Sage and Eugenides, the hero of one of my favorite series of books. When I actually read The False Prince, I found that I noticed similarities, but not in a good way. In fact, I had a lot of problems with The False Prince–problems I couldn’t quite manage to define.
But I think I’ve figured it out. (The rest of this post has huge spoilers for both TFP and the Queen’s Thief series.)
The difference between Sage and Gen, the reason I love one and was mildly perplexed by the other, is that Sage is passive while Gen is active. This is a simplified statement, and you’re welcome to argue with me, but in my opinion the key moment that defines each book is the beginning. At the beginning of The False Prince, Sage is living in an orphanage, hoping to stay out of sight. He resists being seen, he hopes to remain passive. The rest of the story is his being dragged, kicking and screaming, towards action. Gen, on the other hand, begins The Thief by getting caught on purpose. The plot of The False Prince hinges on the coincidence of Sage’s being chosen as one of the candidates. In other words, he is acted upon, chosen by Conner. The plot of The Thief hinges on the fact that Gen has been planning this a long time. He plans to be caught by the magus–he is merely surprised that it took so short a time. He knows that the trip will happen, because he knows how desperately the king of Sounis needs Hamiathes’ Gift. It is his actions that drive the plot, though obviously there are other factors involved.
You can argue that running away & hiding is itself a form of action, and I absolutely agree. But I can’t help thinking of The Queen of Attolia, which I just re-read, where Gen runs away and hides…by going to Ephrata to scope out the situation. Even when he is running, even when he hides his abilities, he is active and acting rather than being acted upon. (As for instance King of Attolia, where he appears to be doing nothing while in fact he is making all kinds of decisions.) His most passive period is the time just after he returns from Attolia when he is recovering from an amputation.
THAT is what I miss in Sage–the self-assurance, the planning, the sense that no matter what happens, he’ll get out of it. Because it’s not that Gen is the only character of his type that I enjoy. Far from it: Lord Peter Wimsey, Howl, Lymond, Kai, Miles Vorkosigan, the list goes on (they’re all male, which I hadn’t realized until just now–interesting).
I believe The False Prince is the first in a trilogy; I’ll probably try the second book to see if Sage has grown up. But for now, I’m happy to have realized why his character didn’t satisfy me.