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Heir Apparent (novel)

For the usage of the term, see heir apparent.

Heir Apparent is a science fiction/fantasy novel by young-adult fiction author Vivian Vande Velde, about a girl who becomes trapped inside a looping virtual reality role-playing game.

The same girl appeared as a secondary character in User Unfriendly, Vande Velde's earlier book about a game from the same fictional company, Rasmussem, Inc. Vande Velde does not consider Heir Apparent a sequel to User Unfriendly, despite their taking place in the same universe, and she notes that the two books can be read in either order.[1]

Vande Velde says, "Heir Apparent was a lot of fun to write because it's about a girl caught in a virtual-reality-type game. Even though Giannine finds herself in a vaguely medieval world, I didn't have to worry about historical accuracy. I also was able to keep throwing all sorts of things at her -- a dragon, an army of ghosts, and a poetry-loving/head-chopping statue."[2]


Plot summary


Giannine receives a gift certificate for a Rasmussem Gaming Center as a birthday present from her father. Unfortunately, when she arrives at the local center, a crowd from "CPOC," the "Citizens to Protect Our Children," has come for a demonstration against such games.

Dodging the protesters, she enters the arcade and gets hooked up to Heir Apparent, a single-player RPG in which there are practically endless ways to win or lose. Giannine's character, Janine de St. Jehan, is the illegitimate child of the recently deceased King Cynric, who pronounced her heir to the throne, passing over three legitimate sons. Her task is to survive the three days (which will only last thirty minutes in the real world) before her coronation. Anytime her character dies, she will automatically be sent back to the beginning of the game.

The game

Janine finds herself on a sheep farm, where she meets her foster mother and Sir Deming, who delivers the news of her ascendancy to the throne. Ignoring her foster mother's advice to say goodbye to her foster father, Janine heads off to the castle. There she meets Queen Andreanna and her three sons Abas, Wulfgar, and Kenric. Andreanna orders Abas to kill her right there. Abas takes out his sword but is stopped by Kenric, who points out that other people have seen Janine enter the castle. Her life is spared, but her reputation is damaged when she perceives a thunderstorm that none of the other characters can see. Outside the throne room, the guards bring before Janine a boy caught poaching deer. They expect her to order the boy's execution, but instead she lets the boy go.

Nigel Rasmussem briefly enters the game to inform her that CPOC broke into the arcade and damaged the equipment, hence the crazy thunderstorm. She cannot exit the game prematurely without risking brain damage, but she cannot stay in the game for too long without risking death in the real world. She therefore must win the game as quickly as she can. He tells her, "And next time, don't forget the ring." Shortly after he vanishes, the guards assassinate Janine, upset by her lenient ruling.

As she goes through the game again, she is on a constant lookout for the ring. Deming and Andreanna are wearing rings but will not relinquish them to her. She varies her decisions but keeps getting quickly killed once by Abas, once by a strange animal in a topiary maze, and once by the poacher boy's father. Back on the farm, she finally rushes at Sir Deming in frustration and tries to bite his ring off his finger, but he takes out a knife and stabs her. The last thing she hears is her foster mother explaining that the ring she seeks was left with her foster father. In her next life, Janine realizes she must no longer skip the step of saying goodbye to her foster father. She ends up before the statue of Saint Bruce the Warrior Poet, where the ring now resides.

At the castle, barbarian invaders led by King Grimbold kidnap Janine, hoping to ransom back a crown they claim Cynric stole from them. Her own kingdom doesn't value her enough to provide the ransom, and even the ring fails to save her. In her next life, she thwarts the raid, and in the ensuing battle Abas beheads King Grimbold.

She learns that Cynric gave the stolen crown (which grants the wearer a temporary Midas Touch) to a dragon that terrorized the land many years earlier. The next day, a meeting with magicians is interrupted by an attack by Grimbold's people, who send a message that they won't stop until Janine is dead. Kenric and Orielle poison Janine, once again sending her to the beginning of the game (deeply frustrating her, for she had made it halfway through).

She uses her past mistakes to plan her decisions better and gain more allies, no longer experimenting with the ring as she previously had. The next time she deals with the boy poacher, she gets Kenric to accompany her. Unlike the previous times, she listens to the evidence with an open mind, makes Kenric feel like he's taking part in the decision, and sentences the boy to a month of hard labor rather than killing him or freeing him.

She once again thwarts the raid on the castle, but because the warlike Abas isn't present, King Grimbold isn't killed. She invites Grimbold to the castle, where they all discuss their grievances in a civilized manner. He agrees to cease the attack for two days, while she retrieves the crown from the dragon.

When the magicians arrive the next day, they determine through a scrying glass that the dragon is a week's journey away, but they give her several magical artifacts that help her reach the dragon quickly and survive the confrontation. She retrieves the crown and returns to the castle, but the dragon follows her. As it clutches her in its talons and is about to devour her, she quickly dons the crown and turns the dragon to gold.

She gives the crown to Grimbold, making peace between the two kingdoms and gaining the respect of her compatriots. At a celebration, she thinks Kenric has poisoned her again, but he insists he has not. (What's really happening is that her time in the game has run out, and she is on the verge of dying for real.) At his suggestion, she uses the ring to make Andreanna treat her fairly and not incite the princes against her.


Giannine awakens in the arms of Nigel Rasmussem, who turns out to be just sixteen. At first she thinks she is still in the game, being held by Kenric. It turns out that Nigel based Kenric's appearance on himself, and Nigel's appearance in the game on Nigel's uncle. He personally explains to Giannine exactly what has happened, and there is implied romantic attraction between the two. The book ends with Giannine's father coming to take her home.


The book takes place in Rochester, New York sometime in the twenty-first century future, but the game is set in medieval Europe.

Major characters

  • Giannine Bellisario/Princess Janine de St. Jehan – Fourteen-year-old protagonist whose gift certificate from her dad almost costs her her life. The product of a divorced home, she is being raised by her grandmother. She appears in Vande Velde's earlier book User Unfriendly.
  • Andreanna – Queen and wife of the late King. She acts very rude and bitter toward Janine no matter what Janine does.
  • Abas – Cynric's middle son, a dimwitted, strength-obsessed titan who initially jumps at any opportunity to kill Janine.
  • Kenric– Cynric's youngest son, who shows a strong interest in magic. Nigel Rasmussem warns Janine not to trust him. She finds him physically attractive.
  • Wulfgar– Cynric's eldest son, who was "raised abroad" and has a dark secret.
  • Xenos – Craftsman of magical artifacts who likes eating centipedes and spiders, especially chocolate-covered ones. He and Orielle do not get along.
  • Uldemar – Blind man who can sense the dead and transform his shape. Janine recruits him to transport her to Xenos's father's home and then race her to the besieged castle.
  • Orielle – Beautiful young woman who specializes in brewing potions.
  • Sir Deming – Snotty nobleman who tells Janine the news of her royal ancestry.
  • Counselor Rawdon – Counselor to the late King. He robs the royal treasury.
  • Penrod – Captain of the Guards.
  • Grimbold – Ruler of the barbarian tribe north of the kingdom. He is enamored by Queen Andreanna but hostile toward her late husband's kingdom because he claims Cynric stole his crown.
  • Xenos's father – Hermit who physically resembles a child and likes riddles.
  • Feordina the Knitter – Tiny, sarcastic woman who dresses in plants and directs Janine to Saint Bruce the Warrior Poet.
  • Saint Bruce the Warrior Poet – To retrieve the ring, Janine must go before his statue and recite a poem of her creation; if he doesn't like it or it isn't original, he chops her head off.
  • Nigel Rasmussem – Sixteen-year-old founder of Rasmussem, Inc. Ironically his parents don't let him spend too much time on the computer, so he works at the snack counter of his own company's establishment, and awkwardly smells like popcorn.
  • Sister Mary Ursula – Weird nondenominational nun obsessed with the "Oneness" of the world. According to Nigel, she does not work well with Kenric, and the most common method of winning the game is to give the ring to her.
  • King Cynric – The late ruler had an affair with a servant, resulting in Janine's birth, then sent Janine to be raised on a farm because he feared for her life.

Magical artifacts

  • ring – gives a person control over someone else's actions (can be given by a person only once)
  • crown – gives a person the Midas Touch once
  • boots – gives a person the ability to walk seven leagues in one step
  • strength potion – gives a person super-strength for an hour, followed by extreme weakness for two hours
  • hat – apparently freezes time, from the wearer's perspective, for five minutes


In her book Constructing Adolescence in Fantastic Realism, Alison Waller discusses Heir Apparent along with several other young-adult novels about virtual reality. She writes that the fact that these novels take place almost entirely within the virtual world suggests "that problems of real life can best be solved within this expressly adolescent space, or that VR environments are inherently more exciting or interesting for teenage readers.... Vande Velde maintains an ironic connection between the fantasy world and a peripheral real world and this minimises the dramatic tension of events within the virtual reality game: we are always aware that Janine's heroic actions and decision-making find reference points in Giannine's real (and in a way rather ordinary) adolescent concerns.... 'Heir Apparent' acts as a space in between the real social relations Giannine faces at home and the virtual adventure she has to tackle as Janine. In a way, she uses the game space to try out new solutions to adolescent problems: to try out a loving father/daughter relationship, for example."[3]

Awards and nominations

Heir Apparent won the Anne Spencer Lindbergh Prize.[4]


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