Friday, June 1, 2012

Monarch Mix-up

Why not try a little royal reading with your children this month? Noble stories of kings and princesses abound for all ages. From the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson all the way up to modern day authors, everyone loves an aristocratic tale.

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen (Scholastic, 2012) is an exciting new book for readers ages 12 and up. It is the story of an orphan called Sage who becomes an unwilling participant in a plot to usurp the throne of Carthya.

Sage is an arrogant, street-wise young man who has become a liar and a thief in order to survive his four-year residence at Mrs. Turbeldy’s Orphanage for Disadvantaged Boys. Against his will, Sage becomes the property of Bevin Conner - a formidable man, plotting to rule the kingdom by training a boy to impersonate the prince who was lost at sea and presumed dead. Conner forces Sage and three other orphans to compete for the role of princely imposter. The winner will become king. The losers must die.

The high level of tension among the characters makes this a gripping story. Nielsen has a brassy, imprudent character in Sage, yet he is also valiant, honorable and ferociously his own man. Sage never goes back on his word and he will not acquiesce to the terms set by Conner. These traits will likely cost him his life.

“You should always choose on the side of hope,” Sage advises another character, though his own situation appears to be utterly hopeless.

Sage is under attack from Conner’s henchmen and the competing orphans, and he is fighting his own demons. As the kingdom of Carthya teeters on the brink of civil war, Sage can survive only by coming to grips with a secret past.

This book is the first volume of the fledgling Ascendance Trilogy. Book two will be released in 2013. 

Another story of about a royal mix-up, for readers ages 12 and up, is The False Princess by Eilis O’Neal (Egmont, 2011). Upon her sixteenth birthday, Princess Nalia is informed that her whole life has been a sham. She is not the princess, but an orphaned peasant named Sinda: a stand-in for the real Nalia, who was hidden away when the oracle prophesied that her life was in jeopardy. Now that the danger appears to have passed, the real Nalia will assume her proper place at the castle and Sinda is sent back to the vulgar life she was truly born into.

This devastating turn of events leaves a shocked Sinda at the mercy of her cold aunt who lives in a distant village. Sinda does her best to accept her new station and to be useful to her aunt, but she is completely unprepared for such an existence.

When dormant magical abilities begin to surface within her, Sinda seeks training from a wizard. The mystery surrounding the long-ago prophecy deepens and Sinda uncovers a secret about the true identity of the princess that no one could have imagined.

Though rather inelegant in style, this story is still a nice bit of entertainment. Sinda’s demotion from princess to pauper is a nice twist on the typical switched-at-birth plot. There’s a little adventure, a little romance and a little magic. This is not a gripping page-turner, but light fantasy fare that will be enjoyed, but not long remembered.


The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain  (1882)

A classic tale of mistaken identity and royal confusion, The Prince and the Pauper will introduce children to an important and entertaining American author.

Mark Twain summarized this novel succinctly in his autobiography: "Edward VI and a little pauper exchange places by accident a day or so before Henry VIII's death. The prince wanders in rags and hardships and the pauper suffers the (to him) horrible miseries of princedom, up to the moment of crowning in Westminster Abbey, when proof is brought and the mistake rectified."

Of course the actual story is so much more than that, and Twain writes with his typical flair for humor. Mark Twain is celebrated for his superb talent for capturing the dialect and peculiarities of a place or period.

Twain’s novels are wonderful to read aloud. Reading with your child will eliminate the intimidation factor brought on by many pages, archaic language and the worry of, “Oh, that book is old!” 

M.D. Clark was blessed with a father and teachers who read aloud to her right up through high school.

Interview with Jennifer A. Nielsen

photo credit: Jeff Nielsen
Jennifer A. Nielsen, author of The Underworld Chronicles, talked with me about her current series, the Ascendance Trilogy, which begins with her recent novel, The False Prince.

MDC: This is a gritty, engrossing story! Sage is an intense character and you seem to know him so completely – where did he come from?

JAN: Sage came from the line of an Eddie Vedder song, “Guaranteed,” in which he wrote, “I knew all the rules, but the rules did not know me, guaranteed.” I loved that line – the idea of a character who could know everything about the game he is playing, but who would be secretly changing all the rules of play.

Once I had that line, I had Sage, all of him. So Book 1 wasn’t about me creating Sage as much as it was discovering him. As intense as he is on paper, he’s just as strong in my head. He lives there as this voice constantly informing me of his opinions, or directing whatever scene I’m trying to write next.

Are Sage’s headstrong ways fearless and admirable, or is he just plain foolish?

Both are correct, I suppose. To me, Sage is a study in contrasts. He is brave, but also experiences fear for his situation. He makes a lot of jokes, but takes on the world with great seriousness. He can mock, but also demonstrates sincere compassion for those around him. And no matter what trouble he dives into, he is very clear that he doesn’t like pain.

I think where the foolishness comes in is that Sage will never move backward. Whether it’s a strength or a flaw, he doesn’t know how to do anything but push ahead. Sometimes that works out for him, and sometimes it’s just plain foolishness. But it’s all he knows.

Each character has a different motive for cooperating in the plot to overthrow the royal family.  Readers may look at Conner and wonder if there is any nobility in his quest to save the kingdom. He claims to be selfless in his actions …

It’s what I love about Conner. He’s so interesting to me because from his perspective, he’s truly doing the right thing. If Conner were writing this story, he would be the hero. He’s not trying to be a saint, and there’s definitely something in it for him, but he wouldn’t consider himself a villain either.

…  bringing up the eternal question: Do the ends justify the means?

Hmm, this will reveal me to be a nerd of unparalleled status, but someday I’d love to write an entire essay solely dedicated to Conner. Not only his personal moral code (or lack thereof), and the way Conner compares and contrasts to Sage, but an evaluation of this very issue as it applies to THE FALSE PRINCE. Because that question leads to the very gray moral area where Conner lives his life, and it would be fun to explore.

You have said of your writing: it “came to me,” and, the “story tumbled out of me.” Tell me more about what that is like.

The idea for this book was with me for a long time, like standing in a slowly filling pool of water. But finding Sage was like having a wave crash into me. All at once, everything was there, as if he brought the details of the story with him and my job was simply to get it down on paper. I’d be writing a scene where Sage is inevitably getting into trouble, and I’d be hoping he decided to back down because I knew what was coming next if he didn’t. Of course, he never did, and then I’d just cringe as I turned the page for the next scene. Writing this book was like watching the movie in my head, and just trying to type fast enough to keep up with it.

Chapters 42 and 43 bring about a great shift in the story and still they don’t give it all away. Did you have a hard time putting clues to the plot twist throughout the story without giving away too much?

I hope that readers who are surprised by the turns in the plot will enjoy going back through the pages to look at the story with new eyes. And that readers who anticipated some of the ending still enjoy the journey. Either way, if the readers feel they’ve been on a great adventure with Sage, then I’m happy!

This book is quite satisfying by itself, but it is really the opening for a three volume series: The Ascendance Trilogy. When can readers expect the next installment? Can you give any details?

The second book in the series should be released next spring. I hope readers will find it to be just as big an adventure as Book 1. And while I’m not allowed to say much about it, I can tell you that for Sage, things definitely get worse!

Though we only get a glimpse of her, I like Princess Amarinda - she’s very practical, and a bit morose. Will we see more of her in the trilogy?

I like Amarinda too. I think she’s in an extremely tough position in this story and I enjoy watching her navigate her challenges while maintaining her dignity as a princess. There are several characters that you’ll see more of as the trilogy continues, and I hope you’ll enjoy seeing where the unfolding story takes all of them.

Are you a Jack London fan by any chance? The battle to break Sage's will reminded me so much of The Call of the Wild.

Okay, confession time. I’ve never read The Call of the Wild – and in fact, I’ve actively avoided reading it for my entire life. As a child, I had a really hard time with stories where the beloved dog gets hurt. As an adult, I could probably handle it now, but the dread of reading animal stories remains with me. Maybe one day I’ll get there, if only because now I’m curious to read the story with the comparison of Sage in mind.

Thank you, Jennifer, and best wishes for your writing career.

Thank you very much for a fun interview!