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Monday, May 12, 2014

“The Goblin Emperor” by Katherine Addison (Reviewed by Casey Blair & Mihir Wanchoo)

Order “The Goblin EmperorHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (Casey): To be blunt, I adored this book.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (aka Sarah Monette) is a standalone fantasy novel. On the surface, it appears to have familiar fantasy tropes: goblins and elves, court intrigue, and so on. In practice, the author subverts the familiar so thoroughly and brilliantly it resembles nothing I’ve read before.

Because I am a total geek about story structure, what struck me right off is how in many ways Addison is flipping the archetypal hero’s journey on its head. Becoming emperor means Maia will never leave the city again: he is effectively trapped at court. He isn’t leaving home to go on a heroic quest and destroy his enemies; he’s learning to make a home, to build bridges, to create a space for power that is not dependent on physical might, to choose compassion with assurance in the most difficult of situations.

Archetypally speaking, that sort of journey tends to be associated with the feminine, and Addison plays with those parallels in very interesting ways. Memorably, Maia tells a female relative, “We were not considered worth educating, either.”

The court politics are Byzantine and fascinating. Addison develops all of Maia’s relationships (with family, friends, political opponents, priests…) fully, and one of the ways she complicates them is with Maia’s unexpected compassion. The author effectively avoids projecting our societal worldviews into her characters’: people in Maia’s world are absolutely scandalized that he would consider those beneath his dignity.

In terms of world-building, Addison went all the way where it comes to language, and there is definitely a learning curve. She has three different levels of diction depending on formality: I am one of those nit-picky readers who gets irritated by misuse of “thee”s and “thou”s, but she nails it. The naming structure is incredibly involved, and on one hand, the sounds and complexity of ranks and styles lends verisimilitude to the world. On the other, there are so many ways to refer to the same person that it took a long time before I felt sure I had the distinctions down. Her attention to language detail doesn’t merely extend to clever turns of phrase and idioms that flesh out the world; she plays with language and makes it work for her, and there are numerous offhand comments that hit like a punch in the gut.

Although the world feels very high fantasy-esque, I hesitate to call it “high,” since there’s very little magic in the book and the little that occurs is not really visible nor explained. If anything, steampunk fantasy is more accurate: there are airships in this world as well as advanced clock technology. The exact level of technology isn’t completely clear, but it didn’t concern me: I understood enough for the story to work, and that’s what matters.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison is a very special kind of coming-of-age narrative. I almost wish it were intended as the first in a series so I could read more, but it is perfectly complete as-is.

OVERVIEW (Mihir): The Goblin Emperor is Sarah Monette’s pseudonymous effort and a book that has had a lot of praise going for it. It is a standalone novel (as of now) and is the story about Maia, the half-goblin son who is now catapulted to become the emperor of the Elflands as he’s the sole male member of the Drahz bloodline. The book begins with the readers being introduced to Maia as he’s taken aback by the news that the crown has now passed on to his head, due to a fatal accident.

Maia is soon forced to entangle him within the courts and the all the politicking that goes along with being an emperor. Here’s where the author really shines as she showcases how Maia, a simple person learns to become an emperor and how he strives to untie all the mystery and threats to his throne. The author has lovingly constructed this world and it shows with all the names and use of the English language. This aspect has put off some reviewers but I rather enjoyed it and it was a bit Tolkienesque in its approach and structure. So if you want to read a story that has a rather different take on elves, goblins and courtly intrigues without any dark touches then The Goblin Emperor is the book that you shouldn't miss.

There are a couple of things that also detracted from the read and firstly it’s the pace of the story, which unfortunately is on the slower side. The author takes her time to establish the world and her characters so some readers might not be willing to drudge through all of it. Also those looking for action and magical battles will not find it here, this story is far removed from the likes of R. A Salvatore or Paul Kemp. Not that it’s a bad thing but be forewarned those who might mistake elves and goblins and go in expecting something else.

This book is a different type of gem and those who enjoy story structure; impressive language usage as well as trope subversion will enjoy it much more than the general fantasy reader. As for me, it was a decent read that merits three and half stars and should the author ever return to this world, I’ll be willing to see what new tale she unleashes.


Liviu said...

personally I found it mediocre fantasy far from the awesome Melusine quartet; sadly that did not sell well, so let's hope that writing banal stuff at least will be rewarded commercially

Artemis Grey said...

I have a LOT of trouble with super complicated worlds and social structures, (no reflection on the writers, it's just me) and I've never much been one for 'stagnant' books where a lot of things go on, but no huge actions take place.


I utterly LOVED 'The Goblin' Emperor'. I'm talking sat up until 4am reading just to see what happened love. I adored Maia right from the off and was really drawn into his saga and wanted to see what happened. Yes, there were parts where I felt the story itself bogged down a little, but for me it was almost a reflection of the tedium of what it was REALLY like to be the Emperor. That constriction and feeling of being walled off from the world was something I could empathize with. Not that I'm an Empress, but that if I ever had that sort of power and responsibility, it would weigh me down and feel like a trap. I also found the banter fun and engaging, rather than contrived.

Aarti said...

I have this out from the library! Very excited to read it. And clearly need to read melusine, too, which is on my shelf...

Bamboo Grovers said...

Yep, I loved it too. Actually turned back to the beginning chapter once I had finished, to reread and savor how far the hero had come.

Anonymous said...

Tried to read the Melusine Quartet, aka Mills and Boon Fantasy novels and dropped it as a bad choice, reluctantly read the Goblin Emperor and felt comfortable with the sytle pace and content. Good read.


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