Have you ever looked at superhero and wondered what life must have been like for them as kid? Did they have a sense of knowing the destiny that awaits them? In Marvel Black Panther: The Young Prince, author Ronald L. Smith tries to answer this in his young adult novel that explores the life of T’Challa before the suit, before The Avengers and before he became the king of Wakanda.
At the ripe age of twelve, T’Challa is living the easy life as the son of Black Panther in his homeland of Wakanda. By his side is his best friend M’Baku who always has his back. Together they explore the vast lands, train and study together. Life is comfortable and their isolated, technologically advanced African nation is thriving. When he’s not learning how to rule a kingdom from his father—the reigning Black Panther—or testing out the latest tech, he’s off breaking rules with M’Baku. But as conflict brews near Wakanda, T’Challa’s father makes a startling announcement: he’s sending T’Challa and M’Baku to school in America.
This is no prestigious private academy—they’ve been enrolled at South Side Middle School in the heart of Chicago. Despite being given a high-tech suit and a Vibranium ring to use only in case of an emergency, T’Challa realizes he might not be as equipped to handle life in America as he thought. Especially when it comes to navigating new friendships while hiding his true identity as the prince of a powerful nation, and avoiding Gemini Jones, a menacing classmate who is rumored to be involved in dark magic. When strange things begin happening around school, T’Challa sets out to uncover the source. But what he discovers in the process is far more sinister than he could ever have imagined. In order to protect his friends and stop an ancient evil, T’Challa must take on the mantle of a hero, setting him on the path to becoming the Black Panther.
Fresh off 2017’s The Mesmerist and Hoodoo, author Ronald L. Smith has spun a tale of disappointment, misdirection and questionable intentions where characters never fully develop, plots aren’t fully flesh out and conflicts are easily solved. As result, The Young Prince is where origin stories go to die. But like any other massive letdown, it starts off with such great promise that takes the reader on a journey of the possibility of adventure only to rob them of their joy.
The book opens with a race that’ll instantly transplant the reader to a land filled with power, gold and rich with black history. Smith truly shines within these fleeting pages where images of proud kings, queens fill the readers senses. There’s a sense of pride that flows through T’Challa’s veins, as he knows the older he’ll get the more he’ll have to undertake. M’Baku senses this and is often an ear and a support system for T’Challa who is determined to forge a path that’ll make his father and nation proud where he doesn’t constantly relying on his father’s services.
The title of future king bears a heavy load as he faces jealousy from his adopted white brother Hunter, who is often chastised by the people because of his race. However, because Hunter is older than him, he is often by their father’s side as a leader in times of battle; something T’Challa deeply envies. But all is not well between the two as Hunter his struggling with inner rage himself. By not being T’Chaka’s blood son, he is denied the throne and even any chance at become the next Black Panther, a title Hunter wants the most.
There is an unspoken battle brewing between the two but at the age of twelve there is only so much a child can do and while T’Challa wants to be at the forefront of battle, protecting the land he is rendered useless upon stumbling on the bloodied body unfamiliar to them in the woods.
Maybe because YA lit is only allotted a certain number of pages to tell a story, Smith’s writing soon becomes rushed, screaming with a sense of urgency, the reader is thrust into the dry boring lands of Chicago were life is dull for not only the characters but for the reader as well.
The main problem with The Young Prince is the author’s choice to take the readers away from all the potential action in Wakanda and T’Challa’s insecurities with Hunter. Pages are wasted were the reader is subjected to learn about the fight at home through phone conversations with T’Chaka. Instead, Smith focuses a lot of the story on the two attending school in Chicago (where nothing really happens), a sudden fractured friendship between T’Challa and M’Baku and battling voodoo/hoodoo.
What makes the story so frustrating as a reader, is the plot not making much sense after they arrive in Chicago. Now considered African exchange students under a new name, they enter into a world where everything from the weather to the landscape and the diet is foreign to them. While this has could be exciting, left in Smith’s hands we don’t see how they’e adjusting to life in America. No one explores the city or learns about the culture like we saw happen in Wakanda. Instead the reader is trapped in a school where both characters are getting along swimmingly (just not with each other) which is typical for any child. T’Challa becomes friends with the nerd science kids where he’s able to impress with his brainy tech knowledge while M’Baku befriends the athletic bullies of the school who give him a sense of belonging (something the reader never knew M’Baku struggled with).
Another one of Smith’s weakness is the introduction of the villain where the story quickly becomes a rushed episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where demonic spirits try to take over the school. Without much reason or hardly any explanation, T’Challa suddenly becomes the Black Panther (even though he’s never taken up the mantle before) with limited training, we read as he takes on adults and his classmates who have fallen under the guise of a magical curse, pleading and losing their souls to a magical being.
Much like the Marvel movies, Smith’s villain aren’t threatening and as result its hard to even care about its sudden appearance or the random kids for that matter. There are moments that are just laughable when villain’s explanation is revealed. What’s worse is the finally battle. Unlike Marie Lu’s Batman: Nightwalker (which thrives by using tech and action), the action is choppy, not well thought out and bland. While there are moments of T’Challa using stealth they are fleeting.
Black Panther: The Young Prince is a missed opportunity and a prime example why writers need to show and not tell their characters story. Rushed, laughable and just lazy at times, T’Challa is not the Black Panther we need and definitely not the hero we deserve.