Review/Discussion: The Traitor Prince

Book Cover
title: The Traitor Prince
author: C.J. Redwine
pages: 416
format: Paperback ARC
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 3/5
Is it a review, is it a discussion? WHO KNOWS! Certainly not me. Because, well, I had a lot of…thoughts while reading The Traitor Prince that weren’t necessarily about this book by itself, so I’m going to talk about those and the book at the same time. Onward we go.

Royalty has long been a staple of fantasy books, and I’ve long been unquestioningly accepting this fact. On the surface it makes a bit of sense: in the pseudo-feudal set up it’s the royals and nobles who are the movers and shakers and world-plot instigators. (Or, rather, it’s easy to think of them as such, because history belies that statement as being absolute fact.) There’s the appeal of getting to write about luxurious settings and accoutrements, the access to nation-level intrigue, and…to be frank, the ability to circumvent a lot of the tediousness of pre-industrial life. It’s hard to be a peasant class hero when all the chores necessary to just stay alive take up your entire day.

So I get the appeal, even though lately I’ve been itching for a shift away from the hyper-royalty focus. I realized how much I would like it when I read The Will of the Empress, which had one of the main characters giving up one of her noble titles. (Just one of them, mind you, so it wasn’t that much of a statement.) Or when I read The False Prince and realized I would have enjoyed the story far more if the main character really had been a ‘false’ prince.

There’s so many things that come along with having a story focused on royalty that generally get dismissed or downplayed in favor of Saving the Kingdom and whatnot, but more and more I find I can’t keep those things out of my brain or stop myself from wishing they’d be subverted. There are questions of legitimacy, of class and power dymanics, of responsibility and corruption and abuse, that all get (not always, but a lot) swept under the rug of “look, she’s a princess, and fantasy stories are about princesses, so off we go.”

And then The Traitor Prince came along and just crystalized this issue in my brain. And suddenly all these feels I’d been having about royalty-focused-stories became feels about this book. So. Off we go.
Javan is the prince of this fantasy nation who has been away from home for ten years, attending an elite boarding school. Just before he is due to return, assassins try to kill him and replace him with his cousin, a royal bastard who (naturally) looks a lot like him. Since no one has seen Javan since he was eight, they figure any differences between them can be explained by ‘he grew up.’ Fair.

Now, ‘impostor tries to take the throne’ is practically a sub-genre in its own right at this point, and this book is a fair example of that plot. But it’s also such a pure distilled example of that set up, and of why it’s iffy in the extreme. Javan, the “rightful” ruler, is good and pure and only wants the best for his country and has motives as clean as the driven snow. Rahim, the “usurper,” is cruel and petty and violent and ruthless and bent on gaining power just because he thinks he should have it because of his birth.

Except, “thinks he should have it because birth” is presented as a villainous trait in Rahim’s case, and yet as…just actually correct in Javan’s case. He never says as much in those exact words, but he does thump on a bunch about being the ‘rightful’ prince. At no point in the story does anyone actually consider which of these boys would be a better ruler, or what ‘rightful’ means, or if their inheritance laws might be maybe just a little flawed. Javan’s parents were married and Rahim’s weren’t; Javan is good and Rahim is bad. Period. Nothing more to it. There may not be a direct line between those two things, but there sure is a whole lot of implication.

Rahim has lived in Akram his whole life, and more to the point, among the poor and working class citizens of Akram. Javan has been in a different country for over half his life, at a school and surrounded by other wealthy foreigners. At no point in the book is it even hinted at that Rahim might actually know the people or the country better than Javan, or that this might be to any sort of advantage. Javan has ‘education,’ which is no small advantage but is still entirely theoretical at the start of the book because he has no experience to match with it. But much like with the legitimacy issue, Javan=good, Rahim=bad and no discussion is even started. There’s also an uncomfortably correlation between Javan=rich=nice and Rahim=poor=bitter and cruel.

Royals are in charge because other powerful people kind of generally agree that they do, plus some complex traditions or institutions that grow up after the fact. Lots of them suck at it, some are cool, but there’s pretty much nothing stopping someone from a different family from sitting on their chair and doing just as good of a job. And usurper stories are in a prime place to actually confront this face and play with it and question it and maybe even have a regime change or two. But stories like The Traitor Prince instead stick to the unquestioning line of legitimacy, and align all their good and bad characters accordingly. The morals of the characters create the situation, rather than the situation testing and revealing the morals of the characters.

And so many issues get completely ignored and dropped to make this work.

I don’t necessarily think it’s required for usurper stories to end with the monarchy in shambles or the commoner in charge, but I do think one needs to grapple with the question of why the people in charge are in charge when succession becomes a key plot point. (Or, well, always grapple with that, if we’re going to be frank.)

That was only the setup of the book, of course, and the rest of it has Javan thrown in prison when he randomly pops up all un-assassinated. He has to fight in the prison’s gladiatorial-style competitions to win a chance to see the king and cry ‘dad, it’s me!’ He winds up enlisting the help of the warden’s slave girl, who is desperately trying to hide the fact that she’s part elf, since elves are both feared and hated. And that part of it is a solid story. The fights are well described and choreographed, and all of them are against monsters not other prisoners, and the monsters are creative and a lot of fun. Well, for us. There’s plenty of tension and a good relationship between Javan and Sadja, the girl. It was a very entertaining book, just not one that aims to break any boundaries.

I still think the strongest book in this series is the second one, which is a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. The fourth one is a Cinderella retelling that sounds quite interesting, and comes out Feb 2019. I’m excited for that one. I think this author has some real skill at twisting fairy tales and making their plot lines both fresh and familiar. I just wish she’d do the same with some of her genre’s more tired tropes, as well. 

1 comment:

  1. I've seen a good usurper story before. Though it's part of the twist that it is a usurper story at all. Princess Principal, about a princess who runs a boarding school that is actually to hide her personal spy-ring. She shares protagonist duties with her favorite spy, a young woman who reflexively lies about everything.

    And the truth is, said spy is the real princess, and the princess is the commoner, who ended up forced into the position by mistake when an earthquake devastated the palace and the princess ended up being mistaken for the commoner in the confusion as they had switched clothing and looked alike enough as kids. The spy wants to help her escape the country so she can escape the very dangerous position as princess where she could be killed at any moment...

    And the princess wants to become queen so she can make it a country where she can openly love the spy and no one will ever question her.