Friday, July 6, 2018

Review: The Goblin Emperor

Title: The Goblin Emperor
Author: Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette)
Genre: Fantasy
Release Date: March 3, 2015

When the airship carrying the emperor of Ethuveraz and his three sons crashes, Maia Drazhar, only child of the emperor's fourth (despised, goblin) wife finds himself unexpectedly inheriting his father's throne. 18 years old, raised in exile, and bearing a resemblance to the mother the court so hated, Maia is a vulnerable and unprepared outsider. The court is bewildering, the gaps in his often-neglected education are a constant hindrance to him, and within a week it is discovered that the crash that killed is father and half-brothers was no accident. 

Out of Ten: 9/10

Review at a Glance: A delightfully complex political fantasy with an unusual approach to the genre and one of my favourite main characters ever.

Review: You know that feeling when you've just constantly been rereading a book for 18 months but haven't reviewed it? No? Just me? So here's the upshot. I have now read this book... going on 6 times. In less than 2 years. That's a lot even for me.

This one is going to be tough for me to review for a lot of reasons but partly because it's such an unusual book, at least in my (not totally inextensive) reading experience. It's a little bit quiet and a little bit dense and a lot political and I really, really like it a lot.

Something I really appreciated about this book is that it dives right in, there's very little in terms of introductory exposition, and trusts the reader to be able to catch up. Formal and informal tenses are used which was, for me as a reader, a novel and slightly disorienting experience at first, but one I found I really enjoyed. Not only did it help give a sense of the sort of social world that this story inhabited, but it also helped showcase character. This definitely isn't a book that I'd recommend to people who like high-action plots or dislike long names but, since I like a little linguistics (and a lot of politics) thrown into my fantasy when I can get it, it was a perfect fit for me.

About those names: there are a lot of them. There are a lot characters and a most of them have a first name and a last name and a title or two. Addison manages to make so many of them memorable, even when they only have one or two scenes and are very minor. The ones that are around for longer are, in general, clearly rendered people with personalities that really stand out.

Maia himself is a really unusual character, suited really well to the story. Having been raised in virtual isolation (first with his mother and then, when she died, handed over to a guardian that hated him), he's an interesting blend of vulnerability and skepticism. He desperately wants friends but is both unsure in social situations and well aware that being emperor complicates every relationship he might have with other people. Despite his lack of formal schooling in, well, basically anything he needs, he rapidly proves himself far more canny and difficult to manipulate than any of the court had expected. It is a genuine pleasure to see, in a heavily political fantasy, a character who is empathetic, well-meaning, willing to try, and determinedly hopeful have their efforts met with anything other than scorn. It was wonderful to see Maia be allowed to keep those traits, rather than, as I've seen in quite a few books, have them completely destroyed within the first half of the book, to be replaced only by bitterness. By page 20 I was messaging the friend who had recommended this book to me basically yelling "LET HIM HAVE FRIENDS. GIVE MAIA FRIENDS."

And here, I think, is where this book really stand out for me. It's kind of the opposite of a grimdark fantasy. It isn't that bad things don't happen (they do), or that there aren't unjust and cruel people in the world, (there are). It is that this book refuses to make these the fully accepted norm. While Maia doesn't start off with any allies at court, he does find them. Amid the difficulty and the overwhelming-ness of what is, to him, an alien situation, he still finds goodwill, and people willing to help. He is able to win people over, to build bridges with many of them, and to learn and accomplish things- even within a messy and complicated political system.

A system which I really liked seeing the ins and outs of. When I say this book is dense, this is what I'm referring to. We get insights into the day-to-day proceedings of the political system, right down to how land-claims disputes are mediated (the resource management student in me clapped delightedly. Like a seal). Most of the book is, rather than action or even the plot regarding finding out who sabotaged the airship carrying Maia's father and brothers, Maia learning to navigate the complicated system, to work within it, and when it is necessary to make a move that circumvents it. Is it a perfect system? No. But no political system in the history of the world has been perfect and I think this book does an admirable job of showing the strengths and weaknesses of it's political system. The proceedings of the court and so many of the discussions in this book also lend the world a sense of scale.

Overall this has wound up being not only one of my favourite books of the past few years, but definitely one of my favourite books ever. It's fiddly and political and intrigued by the minutia of the world and I really like Maia, he's the type of character that you don't often see in the genre.

I have some more ramble-y thoughts here that touch on a few slightly more spoiler-y things (especially if you want more on the political system), although nothing, I think, that would compromise the reading experience.


  1. OH wow that's a lot of rereads!! Which is so awesome, right?! I love finding a book I just want to keep rereading... and this sounds like it has so much depth and complexities, eeep. I'm so glad you love it!

    1. I'm a pretty obsessive rereader at the best of times but this is A LOT even for me. There really is a lot of complexity to this book and I'm such a fan of how the author handles characterising a large, rotating cast in a way that's memorable. And the characters in general. (Give! Maia! Friends!)

  2. Looks like a really good book! I have a few books that I read and reread... they're the ones I love enough to write fanfiction about. I'll definitely have to keep my eye out for this one.

    1. I know the (comparatively tiny) Goblin Emperor fandom would be excited to have more fanfiction, if you do read it and find that you enjoy it enough to write about it!