The galaxy-spanning Empire is ruled primarily by the ten million Princes, young men and women enhanced by Bitek, Psitek and Mektek, and educated to rule. Psychically attached to the Imperial Mind, they can be reborn over and over.
But the Princes pretty much live in a gilded cage, and the protagonist of "A Confusion of Princes" takes awhile to discover that. Garth Nix's first sci-fi novel in fifteen years is an epic space opera, slowly following a young man through his lifetime as a Prince -- and while it's slow-moving at times, Nix's unique "teks" and society make it a delight.
The first days of Khemri's life as a Prince are less fun than he expected -- he's nearly assassinated twice, and his Master of Assassins Haddad whisks him off to join the Imperial Navy (which he doesn't want to do). And after he's connected to the Imperial Mind, Khemri begins to realize that unseen powers in the Empire have special plans for him... assuming he isn't permanently killed first.
But despite a rocky start (including a quiet feud with House Jerrazis), Khemri distinguishes himself when he dies defending a post from the alien Sad-Eyes. When he graduates, a mysterious priest offers him a special assignment as an "Adjuster."
However, the entry test for being an Adjuster involves months of living as a normal human, vulnerable to a permanent death. Khemri -- now renamed "Khem" and and without most of his tek abilities -- ends up living in the Kharalcha system, where he falls in love with a young woman named Raine. As his half-hidden destiny in the Empire approaches him, Khemri must figure out what he truly wants -- a life in the Empire, or a human life?
I'm not into most kinds of space opera, usually because the futuristic stuff just rips off "Star Trek," Heinlein, Asimov and so on. But "A Confusion of Princes" takes place in a truly brilliant world -- it has a race of psychic cyborg Princes, space mantas, ninjas, insectoid soldiers and space stations that can have anything from bamboo forests to deadly lakes to mountains in a BLIZZARD.
The writing is a little unusual for Nix, since it's entirely told from Khemri's POV. But it does give the prose a wry, clever quality, and the style is elaborate and vivid ("I felt a cold, loathsome touch, almost as if something had plunged its frozen fingers into my brain and was feeling around for something it had lost"). The story moves a little slowly at times, but the exotic sci-fi elements keep it from getting boring.
But the center of everything is Khemri. We see him evolve in a surprisingly natural way from an arrogant, naive brat into a selfless young man who... well, learns about family, love and free will, and discovers that he wants to be human. It sounds sappy, but it WORKS.
And Nix rounds it out with a solid cast, ranging from the strong-willed Raine to the insectoid warrior mekbi. The best is easily Haddad, a shadowy Master of Assassins who serves as a father/uncle figure to Khemri, but who has a bittersweet undercurrent to his tutelage. If there's a problem, it's that a few of the minor characters could have used a bit more fleshing out (Tyrtho, who seems significant but... isn't).
Garth Nix leaves behind a lot of space opera cliches in "A Confusion of Princes," a slow-moving, character-propelled sci-fi tale. Definitely a must-see.