Thursday, September 24, 2015

Review: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
Published: Tor, 2014
Awards Nominated: Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy Awards
Awards Won: Locus Fantasy Award

The Book:

“The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an "accident," he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir. Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.

Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend... and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne – or his life.”

This is the first book I’ve read by Katherine Addison, and to be honest I wasn’t sure it was going to be my style. It has shown up on enough “Best of 2014” lists and award lists that I was willing to give it a shot.  It is pretty much the style of story I had expected, but it’s also quite a fun book.

My Thoughts:

The Goblin Emperor seems to me somewhat similar to a Victorian novel, though it is obviously not set in our world’s Victorian era.  I believe this impression was created through the strict social stratification, the focus on class and etiquette, the aristocratic setting and the heavy emphasis on polite dialogue. As in most Victorian novels I have read (admittedly, few), the social situation that surrounded the protagonist was filled with many different subplots quietly moving along. Most of these stories involved dilemmas of class, romance, interpersonal relationships and court intrigue, and it seemed their resolution was mostly achieved through meetings and conversation.  The pace is very slow and measured as Maia goes through his daily life as emperor in a court populated by many, many minor characters. In general, if you’re not a fan of the style or slow pace of the beginning of the book, I would say you’re unlikely to change your mind by the end.  However, if you get into the flow of the story, it is very entertaining to see how all of the different situations slowly progress.

Though The Goblin Emperor is set in a world of goblins and elves, it sometimes felt like it was only barely a fantasy story.  The main fantasy element was that the two cultures chosen as the basis of the story are fictional-- that they are non-human is largely irrelevant, and they do not really map to the standard fantasy ideas of ‘elf’ and ‘goblin’. The cultures are described in great detail and the world that Maia inhabits feels very real and natural, though some details interested me more than others.  For instance, there is quite a lot of information about how one addresses a man or a woman of various rank and marital status, which fleshes out the rules of the aristocracy but is not of much interest to me.  Other things that stay largely in the background intrigue me more, such as the workings of a religious Witness, a kind of supernatural detective.  I enjoyed the more unusual quirks of the elven and goblin culture, but sometimes found myself impatient with the minutiae of social norms.

For me, it was the character of Maia and his growth that kept me interested in the story.  He grew up through grief and then an abusive home to become a very fair and decent young man.  He had not been trained for his new position, but he threw himself into learning his new role, even when it seemed a hopeless task.  I felt for him as he struggled through feeling like an imposter, through processing his old grief for his mother, and through learning that he really doesn’t have to--and in fact, he can’t--please everyone.  As an outsider to the court, he had perhaps more ability to think outside of established norms, and I appreciated his determination to not let tradition replace reason and compassion.  It was a slow story, but it was kind of a coming-of-age story for Maia, with the added pressure of potential coup d’etats and/or assassinations.  I appreciated where the conclusion left Maia, though part of the resolution of the story was a little philosophically unsettling.

My Rating: 4 /5  

The Goblin Emperor is not the style of book I usually read, but in this case I’m happy the Hugo nominations prompted me to give it a try.  The heart of the book is with the character Maia, a truly decent and compassionate person who is thrust into a difficult political situation.  I enjoyed watching him grow and learn how to navigate his new world, and some of the general problems he faces (entrenched traditions, imposter syndrome, a tendency to people-please) are very relatable.  The story focuses on his daily life, and so it meanders along through many subplots with many, many characters.  The story moves forward in a very sedate manner, heavy on dialogue and light on action.  Though things sometimes moved a bit too slowly for my taste, I enjoyed getting to know Maia and seeing his carefully-imagined world.  

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