Aside from some rather grotesque cover art, there’s really not anything particularly wrong with A Prince Among Men. Unfortunately, it’s equally difficult to think of anything that it actually does right. It’s a relentlessly ho-hum sort of novel, reasonably diverting while it’s in front of you but always giving the lingering sensation that if an overenthusiastic friend or a speeding bicycle messenger were to come along and knock it flying from your hands into a storm drain, you wouldn’t feel any particular sense of loss, just a kind of unfocused irritation for the two seconds it took you to forget about the book entirely. This is a bit of a shame, as the premise actually seems pretty fun.
The basic idea is that somewhere in a vaguely sketched future run primarily through Asian corporate interests, a sorceress is plotting to reawaken King Arthur in Massachusetts, thereby somehow reintroducing magic into a world grown decadently reliant on the scientific. Arthur does indeed reappear, but he’s the proverbial fish out of water and needs the assistance of one John Reddy, a museum guard who happened to be on hand while all of this was occurring — except that it wasn’t a coincidence he was on hand at all, or was it, or was it fate, or… ? I’m not really sure.
Actually, I get the impression that Reddy’s baffling presence was probably off-handedly explained at some point with such brevity that I partially missed it. That uncertainty rather sums up my feelings on the novel at large: there are a lot of very ambitious elements in play, but Charrette seems determined to downplay and normalize them all, as though he’s concerned that if he portrays a genuine moment of wonder or lingers too long over the magic, he’ll careen into cheesy schmaltz and lose his audience. There are a lot of story points that feel as though they could have been good ideas had they been given a little more energy: John’s invisible friend, John’s heritage, Arthur’s acclimation, the futuristic setting, the myriad of warring organizations on one side or another… any one of these could have been fine or even a good element in a balanced text if handled better. In Charrette’s hands, however, the story just ends up feeling oddly perfunctory and a bit listless. There’s no real sense of connection with any particular character, so that one wonders why there had to be so many. Likewise, the world never really feels immersive or as though Charrette is all that interested in it, begging the question of why it couldn’t have been simply our own familiar modern world.
On the level of style, I have to return to the “not bad/not good” description. The prose isn’t offensive, but on the other hand it’s not particularly engaging either. There are few if any moments of subtlety or beauty here from an artistic perspective, nor is there the sense that Charrette was making any real effort in that quarter. He seems content to chug along with a fairly casual, pedestrian tone. The characterization is all right, but again I found it difficult to connect with anyone. Even John/Jack, the protagonist and everyman, doesn’t really feel like a fully realized person. We get glimmers of personality here and there, but Charrette blasts through them like bullet points on a slideshow presentation. Ultimately John exists to move the plot along, not to act as a real person might. The best example of this is probably his eventual meeting with his “imaginary” friend in the flesh. I don’t know about the rest of you, but had I been told all my life I was insane only to find the voice in my head revealed as a flesh-and-blood woman, I would probably have a lot of questions and a lot of conflicting emotions. John’s reaction? “Oh, it’s that person whose voice I’ve heard in my head, except now apparently she can walk around. How cool. But enough of this confusion and disbelief stuff. I’d like to get it on with her. I wonder if that’s weird?”
Yes, John. It’s weird. It’s very weird.
In the end A Prince Among Men isn’t terrible, but I can’t honestly give it a passing grade either. It’s just mediocre, a middling work from an author with a lot of good ideas but who remains a bit out of his depth when writing them down with any real emotion or intensity.