The Prince in Waiting by John Christopher (1970) 160 p.
This is the first volume in John Christopher’s “The Sword of the Spirits” trilogy, which is aimed at young adults. I count Christopher’s Tripods trilogy among the best young adult science fiction I’ve ever read, so I was interested to see him do fantasy. The story begins with Luke, a young man, visiting a colony of dwarves who work with arms and armour at a great forge. We learn some more about the city where he lives, a medieval-sounding place with a Prince and his captains, wagons on the roads, horses in the fields, etc. Before the chapter is out, Luke idly traces the faint outlines of old words written on a piece of wood: RADIO & TV DEAL.
Surprise! This is another post-apocalyptic story, which is kind of a shame, because it ends up echoing a lot of the ideas in the Tripods trilogy. The city itself is Winchester, which is also where the protagonist in the Tripods trilogy comes from – I suppose it’s Christopher’s hometown. The book follows Luke as Winchester’s ruling Prince is deposed by the gods known as the Spirits, and Luke’s own father is raised in his place. A number of campaigns and events and battles come and go, and without spoiling the ending (which is clearly just the end of the first part in a series, anyway) Luke eventually leaves the city.
I didn’t enjoy this as much as The White Mountains, the first book in the Tripods trilogy, but I was probably about 15 when I last read that. When I re-read that trilogy, which is on the to-do list, maybe I’ll now see the same flaws present in The Prince in Waiting – wooden characters, and Christopher’s oddly stiff narration. This is just his style, I think – it was definitely present in The Guardians and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it when I revisit the Tripods trilogy. It’s a strange style of prose, not so much in how it cleanly lays out the circumstances on the table and analyses the characters’ emotions, but the way it does so in a polite, refined British manner. There are echoes of it in The Death of Grass, Christopher’s brutal apocalyptic novel for adults, though not as much – maybe he felt the need to spell things out a bit more for kids.
One thing that sets this book apart from Christopher’s others is how unlikeable the protagonist is. Luke is arrogant, proud, lacks curiosity about the world around him, and is often cold:
I was too bitter and wretched to realise what he was offering: having weathered his own grief and disappointment he would still go into exile with me as a companion to me in mine. Later I understood. Friendship meant much to him, more than it could ever do to me.
Beyond that, however, I felt that The Prince in Waiting rehashed too many elements from The White Mountains – the ruins of a great civilisation, a young protagonist going in to exile, and (most blatantly) a secret organisation that remembers the old ways. And in comparison with its predecessor, this book suffers from having a static setting and an larger cast of ancillary characters. The White Mountains had only three major characters, undertaking a road voyage. Characterisation is not Christopher’s strong suit, and I lost track of who was who to some extent towards the end of The Prince in Waiting.
I was fairly ambivalent about The Prince in Waiting and have no doubt this will be an objectively weaker series than the Tripods trilogy. But I’ll read the next two books nonetheless, because they’re not big or time-consuming, and I’m interested to see where Christopher goes with it.