This is probably a good time to admit that I'm a bit of a Merlin fangirl, and I only needed to see 'if you love Merlin' (I DO. I LOVE MERLIN VERY MUCH) to pick this book up. Although its actual similarity to Merlin would be little more than a quasi-mediaeval setting and a coming-of-age element, the real similarities lies in their shared light spirit and humour.
[ALTHOUGH, I also have to add that in my head, Conner had Charles Dance's face (the Witchfinder in Merlin; Vetinari in Going Postal). He has that scary look.]
Sage is scraping by at an orphanage at the edge of Carthya, far from important events and people. When a King's Regent, Bevin Conner, scouts him out because of a resemblance to the lost (presumed dead) prince of Carthya, Sage is thrown into a competition against three other orphans. They, too, have been chosen for their resemblance to the lost prince. Conner plans to pull off a crazy coup to prevent a civil war - a civil war which will destroy Carthya, as its bordering countries take advantage of their weakness and annexe them.
There are only two weeks before the regents convene to discuss the succession - only two weeks to turn the ragged orphans into princes, and pick the most likely among them for the job. But for the boys, being chosen to impersonate the prince becomes a matter of life and death. Tobias is bookish and clever but physically a bit of a wimp; Latamer is sickly and unwilling, Roden is strong and fast, but his wits are slow and he is easily led. Sage is not led at all, and is dragged into the contest kicking and screaming - the only one, apparently, who can see the plan for the madness it is.
Jennifer Nielson's writing style is pleasantly spare and direct, which makes it wonderfully readable. She doesn't faff around with highfalutin language, and plot and pace are perfectly timed. Sage, our narrator, is amusing and aggravating in equal measure, much like Gen from Megan Whalen Turner's 'The Thief'. In a welcome turn, the plot itself is the vehicle for revealing Sage's character and personality, with very little need for explicit exposition, which in turn means that the pace doesn't fall off.
The False Prince is a bit Hunger Games, a bit Merlin, a bit John Flanagan, a bit Megan Whalen Turner, and then very much *itself*. They are writers who have a simplicity and sympathy in their work that make it compelling to read. It's the kind of elegance that comes from very good editing, a cracking story, and an authentic narrator. Sage's voice is wry and engaging, and The False Prince had me by the first chapter.
I'd (very strongly) recommend it to fans of BBC's Merlin, John Flanagan (Ranger's Apprentice; Brotherband) and Megan Whalen Turner (Queen's Thief books), for ages 9+ (but easily enjoyed by adults, i.e. me).
Now I have to wait for the next book. Why. -_-