This is a really hard book for me to review. Not because I didn't enjoy it (which I did), but because I think the discussion about it needs to involve a major spoiler. Without discussing the spoiler, the review doesn't get the chance to say a whole lot of substance (in my view), so I'm going to bite the bullet and weave the spoiler in. Not right at the beginning - I'll warn you in bold before I start discussing it, so if you'd like to avoid the spoiler, you're safe reading the first part.
Fourteen year old Sage is an orphan in the country of Carthya. He's got no family and no money, although he does have a home in a sad little orphanage run by a woman who doesn't like him (or any of the orphans, really). He gets by in life by stealing: food, money, whatever he can get his hands on. Except one day, someone steals him. That someone is a noble by the name of Conner, and he has big plans for Sage and three other boys he's taken.
Prince Jaron of Carthya, the heir to the throne, disappeared during a pirate attack at sea a few years ago and has been presumed dead since. Conner intends to make one of his boys into the picture of the prince and place him on the throne. All in the name of patriotism of course: with no apparent heir to the throne, the late king's advisers are chomping at the bit to be named the next ruler, and it could send the country into civil war, which would in turn make Carthya susceptible to attack by neighboring countries.
None of the boys resemble the dead prince too closely, but Conner is convinced that with the proper training, clothing, and hair dye, he can pull it off. Of course, only one of the boys can be his choice. As to what would happen to the others - well, Conner can't let anyone talk about his plans to anyone else, can he? Sage isn't sure if he's down with this competition, but when the alternative is death, there really isn't a choice.
WARNING: SPOILER BELOW
I'm an avid review-reader. Before I pick up a book, I go to Goodreads and see what people are saying about it. Sometimes it will convince me to give the book a pass, and sometimes it will make me more excited to read it. In this case, reading reviews helped me spot the spoiler, and I'm not sure if that's a good thing. I don't read reviews with spoilers deliberately, and none of the reviews I read actually revealed the spoiler, but they revealed enough. Really, all they had to do was tell me that the book reminded them of The Thief.
If you've read The Thief and you've read this far in my review, I bet you can call the ending of The False Prince without even reading the first page. I sure could. Every time I think about this book, I wonder if I would have discovered the twist at the end if I had not read that comparison, and I honestly can't say. Perhaps. But it would have been harder, it would have taken me longer, and I wouldn't have been so sure until I got there.
When I first read The Thief, the twist ending is what elevated it from a book I really liked to one I would remember forever. It was all good, but the real joy came in re-reading and determining just where Turner had dropped those hints. In The False Prince, I looked for those hints right from page 1, and they seemed so easy to spot. It makes me struggle to determine the true quality of the book - is the twist a gimmick because it's predictable and too similar to another middle grade fantasy novel? Or is my experience with The Thief clouding my judgment?
I don't know the answer to those questions. What I do know is that despite my foreknowledge, I still raced through the book and was completely engaged the entire time. Even though I knew how it would end, I wanted to see how Nielsen got us there. So I can safely say it's a good book, but I don't know about great. It's got plenty of excitement, a lot of action, and a good voice in Sage. Sage's fellow prince contenders are quite well drawn, as are the two female ancillary characters, though they don't get a lot of page time. And I definitely plan on reading the sequels. Nielsen can't use this same trick in them, so I'm interested to see where the story goes.