***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
I was trying to force myself to overlook the fact that The False Prince is derivative--approaching plagiarism--of Megan Whalen Turner's work, until I saw how many thousands of goodreads reviews it has, that it's a New York Times bestseller, and that it's being made into a movie with the story editor of Game of Thrones as the screenwriter, and now I'm just upset. That it's being made into a movie is unfortunate, because Turner's story, characters, world-building, and literary geo-politics are far superior to anything in The False Prince.
I listened to this in audiobook, and there's an interview (really formatted as a monologue) of Jennifer A. Nielsen at the end. I slogged all the way through it, hoping she'd pay homage to Turner. She mentions her name in passing--the briefest mention among a dozen author names and books. So it wasn't the acknowledgment I was hoping for, but it proves that she had read The Thief before she wrote this, which means she had to be aware of what she was doing, right?
While I was reading, I tried to tell myself that this was for a younger audience than The Thief, and that maybe I should put it in the same category as Amy Timberlake's One Came Home, which I think of as excellent middle-grade preparation for True Grit, or Patrice Kindl's Keeping the Castle, which is a nice "lite" introduction to the world of Jane Austen for young readers who aren't quite ready for the real thing. But this analogy doesn't work. In both of those cases, the stories and characters are wholly original, only the language and tone are the same as the adult books they emulate. Also, it's not clear to me that Nielsen even intended The False Prince to be for a vastly younger audience than the Queen's Thief series; I think her writing is less sophisticated, and readers are categorizing it that way. In fact, there's more romance in The False Prince than in The Thief, and The False Prince clocks in at about 8,500 more words, both of which make it arguably shooting for the same audience that The Thief might appeal to.
If The False Prince were the first of its kind--the first book to have a royal disguised as a filthy thief and orphan; the first book to have an unreliable first-person narrator hiding that secret from not only the other characters but also the readers; the first book with a mischievous, roof-climbing, food-stealing, cocky, but genuinely talented and secretly sensitive protagonist who seemingly rebels at every stage in the task that has been assigned to him; the first book to have that protagonist best all the bright minds around him while helping to keep the bordering countries from taking control of his monarchy and keeping himself safe from his enemies--well, then, it might be a decent, fun book. Mind you, it's not lyrically written, the world-building and politics are vague, and the secondary characters are sometimes flat (Roden) or stereotypes (Cregan), but it would be a fine book in that alternate, Turner-less universe. Here's the thing, though: The Thief exists, and that's a game changer. Nothing in The False Prince is original enough to merit the wholesale similarity to Turner's work. Nothing makes it homage rather than--I'm sorry to be harsh--opportunistic mimicry. And Nielsen's gambit seems to have worked: readers notice the similarities but don't seem to care. What is happening to our critical thinking in this country? Nielsen has stolen Turner's thunder (and movie deal) right out from under her, as if she were the thief.
An astute goodreads review uses a bathing scene from each book to show the difference between the two authors' skills:
"Turner’s narrator, Gen, is a much more charming storyteller than Nielsen’s Sage is. In the equivalent bath scenes, Gen details his behavior: 'I tried to look disdainful, but the bath wasn’t over. Pol marched me across the room to a wooden tub full of water and pushed my head under while I was still howling in outrage. … When I snarled that I could have more easily washed myself, he tossed me a towel.'
Here’s Sage in the same situation: '"It’s colder now," I said grumpily. … Errol’s gentle manners were not reflected in his bathing assistance. It surprised me how much dirt came off the second time. While he busied himself with a brush on the bottom of my feet, I looked at my fingernails. "I don’t remember them ever being this color," I said, then yanked my foot away.'
Gen’s word choice is pristine. He tries to look proud, but he doesn’t show control of his own movements (Pol is marching him to the tub) or his own emotions (he howls and snarls). Sage, by comparison, speaks grumpily as ungentle Errol assists him, and is surprised to see that he was so dirty. I personally find it much easier to believe someone who conveys emotion in his verb choice than in his adjectives and adverbs, and the credibility of the narrator is critical to the fun of the story."
I'm reading Melina Marchetta's Finnikin of the Rock and noticing some common elements, too: the female character who pretends to be mute; the prince whose family was killed, who is himself presumed dead, the only heir to the throne. If I recall correctly, Nielsen lists Marchetta as an influence in her interview as well. But these are somewhat more universal plot devices. I think the resemblance to The Thief is the real injustice here. Nielsen's talent seems to be taking the best of other people's work and blending it into something not quite as artful, but clearly pleasing enough to make readers forgive that almost none of it is original.