I have just finished reading my favorite book of the year to date, the sort of finishing that involves desperate, gulpish page-turning, with the pleasure of reading fighting the need to know what happens. The book in question is The False Prince, by Jennifer Nielsen (Scholastic, 2012, ages 10 up, 352 pages), and I read it in a single sitting.
The story starts when a guttersnipe named Sage, and three other boys, are plucked from the various orphanages of a medieval-eque kingdom by Connor, an ambitious nobleman. The royal family has just been murdered, and Connor plans to keep the kingdom from descending into anarchy by producing the younger prince, lost at sea four years earlier. Sage and co. have been carefully picked for their resemblance to the vanished prince...but only one will be chosen as Connor's impostor, and it's pretty obvious that he won't scruple to kill the runners-up.
Two weeks of princely training at Connor's estate aren't enough to make Sage the tool that Connor needs. Especially since Sage has no intention of ever being owned by anyone...
Sage, a mischievous, conniving, intelligent thief/orphan boy, tells the story from a beautifully unreliable first person point of view. There's a huge emotionally charged story embedded in this unreliable narration, that flashes to the surface every now and then with aching intensity. And this made Sage not just another pretty thief boy, but a real, believable, intense character, unwilling to compromise on his core values. It's easy to imagine a ten year old girl crushing on Sage, and he's worthy of it, but my own reaction was that of a mother--my heart ached for him.
The whole unreliability bit was at exactly my level (so not that high a bar)-- I figured out exactly what I was supposed to, and reacted accordingly. Enough was told the reader so that they could appreciate things, but enough was kept secret, both internally in the world of the book, and externally, from the reader, to make it all very tense.
In short, it was a really, really good book. If you like the same books that I like, do try it. Especially if, like me, you are a fan of Megan Whalen Turner's books--Sage is, in many, many ways, a lot like Gen (although his story and his character are his own). The False Prince is the first of a trilogy--of course I'm glad to have more books to look forward to, but I willing to bet that, inasmuch as the secrets and plottings and lies of this one can't continue easily into subsequent books, it will always be my favorite of the series!
Note on age of recommended reader: Sage is 14 or 15, just at the point of his life where there's some hint that, when he's not preoccupied with small things like staying alive, preventing wars, etc., he will be interested in girls. Although there are two girls who will almost certainly be in the next book, romance is is still to come. This makes this a fine book for the ten to eleven year old or so, and, judging by my own reaction, there's enough to keep the interest of older readers. There's one sudden murder, and a smidge of torture, but not so much as to be the stuff of nightmares.
Note on "fantasy": this is one of those books that's clearly fantasy, because it takes place in an alternate version of medieval reality, but nothing magical at all, not one little bit, ever happens. It's much more a mystery/adventure story, which might broaden its appeal.
Disclaimer: hardcover review copy received from the publisher, to which my initial reaction was pleasure that I could pass it along to the library, but that ain't gonna happen. It's staying on my bookshelf.