Khemri, our narrator, tells us straight up that he has died three times, and that this is the story of those deaths “and my life between.” It’s also made clear that although he is called a Prince, he hasn’t been born into a royal family but, rather, effectively kidnapped – requisitioned might be a better term. The story is that of Khemri learning that much of what he knows about being a Prince is wrong, or at least wrong-headed. He learns this while avoiding being killed – usually not because of his own wits – and while gradually coming to terms with the realities of the Empire. He has a wise, enigmatic Master of Assassins by his side (and the novel includes a bonus short story that gives just a little more insight into Haddad’s character), and while he does die a few times the first time isn’t until he’s actually learnt some things, which is a plus.
The overall story is fairly enjoyable. The twists and turns in Khemri learning how the Empire actually works, as opposed to how he has been taught that it does, is generally well played, although not especially original; there were only a couple of times I was genuinely surprised. I enjoyed the idea of the Princes all vying to be the next Emperor and how that might play out when there are ten million of them, mostly bloodthirsty or at the very least ruthless. And the world building was particularly interesting.
Truth be told, it was the world building that really kept me reading. The combination of Mektek, Bitek and Psitek is wonderfully intriguing – how an empire could get to the point where all three are valued, and used, and used in conjunction is fascinating. The idea of the Empire itself was… interesting, and intriguing even, but there wasn’t quite enough background or explanation to satisfy me. There is some explanation of what it means to be Emperor by the end of the story, but still not really anything about why it is an empire that rules this sprawling, mostly-human conglomeration of planets; nor why or how it was decided that Princes ought to be sought from the general population. I really liked this aspect, but it still was confusing about why it was there in the first place, if not simply as a narrative device.
Sadly, it was an aspect of the world building that really, really grated on me and meant that even if the story had been glorious, I would still not have been in love with this book. Princes get mind-programmed thralls: butlers, valets… courtesans…. This aspect of Khemri’s life, and the fact that throughout all of his adventures he basically accepts this as his due, revolted me. If there had been some questioning of this ‘right’ for Princes, if there had been some interaction with a thrall that indicated they had awareness and Khemri wondered about them, I could perhaps have swallowed a bitter pill and taken this for an aspect of a hinted dystopia. But there isn’t. Instead, we have slaves, who have been programmed, conditioned, to serve their master and be incapable of rebelling. This, I cannot accept.
On a different note, Khemri is your Perceval-type character. (Remember when David Eddings wrote a big long thing about how to construct a fantasy world and story? Maybe at the start of… I forget, one of the Belgariad tag-along books. Anyway, he said your main character, who was clearly going to be male, basically fell into Arthurian archetypes, and Garion was Perceval: the slightly dim well-meaning young fellow who needed everything explained to him.) He’s arrogant and dim, without realising the latter while relishing the former; he has his hopes for his young Princely life dashed and then nearly his actual young Princely life as well, and he gradually learns about power and authority and their right use and etc. Standard stuff. Haddad is nicely played as enigmatic-older-guide, and I would really liked to have seen more of him; the fact that people such as him get assigned to different Princes over their careers suggests all sorts of intriguing possibilities for issues of loyalty. Other than that, there’s A Girl, and a fairly large cast of C-characters who alternately challenge, nearly kill, and befriend our hero.
The gender issue is also an interesting one in this story. Princes can be either male or female, and they are treated no differently from one another; once you are a Prince, with all the conditioning and genetic tweaks attendant on that, you’re just… a Prince. Male or female no longer counts for anything, if it ever did. The same goes for priests and assassins; there seems to be no barrier about holding significant roles within either field, or indeed any other, based on gender. With all of that, the one female who plays a significant role is a love interest. She does other things too, but it still feels like she almost entirely defined by the romantic aspect, and the impact this has on Khemri. Which was a little disappointing.
Overall, I was somewhat disappointed: by the thralls specifically, but by the lacklustre nature of the story more generally. It’s touted as a space opera, but it’s just not grand enough for that. Some might argue that it is grand enough for a YA space opera, but I don’t think YA means getting to be a little bit boring with plot and magnificent gestures. It may be that I am cynical and jaded (never let it be said that I am too jaded to admit that’s possible). On the other hand, maybe this does just miss the mark.