Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Review: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

cover art for The Goblin Emperor, featuring a white palace perched atop a grey-skinned person's head like a crown. An airship floats above the palace, while aqueducts angle out to each side of it. The background is an indistinct pinkish grey reminiscent of the person's skin tone.
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Maia, the youngest son of the Emperor, has spent most of his life relegated to a backwater estate since his elven father would rather not see a constant reminder of the goblin lady he regrets marrying. Maia expects his exile to be a permanent arrangement, but it comes to an abrupt end when his father and older brothers are killed in an airship explosion. Thrust into an unfamiliar court in which intrigues abound, Maia has no choice but to become Emperor.

And he has no idea how to do what's expected of him.

Friends, THE GOBLIN EMPEROR [Amazon | Kobo | The Book Depository] was my most anticipated book of 2014. You see, Katherine Addison is my most favouritest of favourite authors--she’s published a number of novels and short story collections under the name Sarah Monette--and this is her first new novel in a few years. I’m not saying I stalked NetGalley for weeks on the offhand chance Tor would make it available on there, or that I made burnt offerings to the Publicist Gods after I’d hit "request," or that I performed the happy dance when they informed me I was welcome to read it, but I invite you to draw your own conclusions.

If you’ve interacted with me on social media at any point over the last month, you already know how much I loved it, and how badly I want you to read it. Let’s spell out a few reasons, though, so you and I can both feel good about your decision to rush out and buy this (or ask your library to buy it, if that's your thing).

THE GOBLIN EMPEROR is very much a fish out of water story. Maia isn’t completely ignorant, but his education has in no way prepared him to be Emperor. He has to master the job awfully quickly lest he leave himself vulnerable to scheming courtiers, any one of whom could have been behind the previous Emperor’s death.

Maia’s limited knowledge of the court’s inner workings gives the reader a prime opportunity to absorb everything alongside him, making this very much a How Stuff Works book. As some of you may recall, How Stuff Works books are my favourite. They give the reader an opportunity to take a close look at how a particular mechanism--in this case, a large empire equipped with a complex bureaucracy--operates, all within the context of a good story.

A successful How Stuff Works book is never infodumpy, since everything that comes to light either furthers the plot or adds to the characterization. That’s very much the case here. I had an absolute blast discovering the ins and outs of courtly life and the role Maia was expected to fill there.

Addison’s worldbuilding is exquisite, as always, and feeds into the story in some gorgeous ways. The society she presents here isn’t medievalesque; a potential disappointment for fans of the form, but always a good way to score points with me. Medievalesque worlds are okay and all, but there are so frickin’ many of them that it’s nice to have something different every once in a while. In this case, the technology is somewhat pseudo-Victorian, what with the prevalence of airships and gaslights and pneumatic tubes, but the social structures aren't even close to a match. Neither are the fashions (which sound gorgeous, by the way. I’m particularly taken with the hair ornaments). It's impossible to pin THE GOBLIN EMPEROR down to a particular real world time period, and the result is unique and unexpected; a banquet of non-standard fantasy goodness.

The worldbuilding works on multiple fronts, too. On the linguistics side of things, Addison introduces a grammar that varies depending on each conversational partner’s relationship to the other, and on the formality of an exchange. Fun! Physiologically, she takes advantage of her elven and goblin characters’ unique attributes to add another level to each conversation; which is to say, their ears often give away their emotional state, whether they will them to or not.

I love details like this.

I suppose I should add, now, that some of the complexities of Addison’s worldbuilding could prove stumbling blocks for readers. I normally ignore dramatis personae when they’re provided, but Maia is surrounded by so many aides, courtiers, and servants that I dearly wished for one here. Much to my surprise, there is a dramatis personae-slash-world guide, but it’s at the back of the book instead of the front, so I missed it. (Oh, eARCs. You’re so convenient, but you have your disadvantages.) If at any point you’re confused as to someone’s role in the story, flip to the back and look them up.

The names, too, could be a source of confusion. They have a distinctly goblinish cant to them, what with all their guttural consonants, and they follow particular rules depending on the characters' gender, rank, and marital status. I had a lot of fun parsing the conventions for myself, but if you feel differently, please be aware there’s also a relevant guide right before the dramatis personae. It’s spoiler-free, so you’re safe to read it before you dive into the book, if you are so inclined.

So, yes. Structurally, and from a worldbuilding standpoint, this book is awesome. It’s got everything I love: a gorgeously realized world, plenty of jaw about How Stuff Works, and a setup guaranteed to provide heaps of tension as the protagonist navigates unfamiliar terrain. But THE GOBLIN EMPEROR is so much more than a pretty world and a good premise. It’s packed so full of heart that it makes me ridiculously happy whenever I think of it, even weeks after I turned the last page.

And I think of it a lot, because it’s the sort of book that sticks.

Addison’s previous novels are dark, to put it mildly. She’s the sort of writer who does awful things to her characters in service to the plot, and to their emotional growth. Maia is no exception, but in his case, most of the horrible stuff happens before or very soon after the book begins. Maia loses his mother when he’s very young, his father wants nothing to do with him, and he’s shunted off to a backwater estate with a cousin who beats him for kicks.

Then, within twenty pages, he’s brought to court and told a) he can never, ever, ever be alone again, because Emperors need supervision for their own good, and b) he can never be friends with anyone because Emperors aren’t allowed to be on the same level as their subjects.

It’s a crap situation and Maia knows it. He also knows there’s no way out except death or abdication, the latter of which both leaves the country vulnerable and is bound to result in his death anyways via an "accident" of some sort.

So things, they are not so good at the beginning. But fear not! It gets better! THE GOBLIN EMPEROR eschews straight-out grittiness in favour of something tinged with hope. Addison doesn’t sugar coat the harsh realities of Maia’s station, but neither does she leave him mired in desperation forever. She does a phenomenal job of building sympathy for him, of showing us the stress his new position places on him, and of organically relieving that stress as the plot rolls along.

I’m reluctant to say too much about all that because really, it’s the meat of the novel. There's plenty of political intrigue and a subplot involving the investigation into the airship explosion that killed the rest of the royal family, but Maia’s own growth rests firmly at THE GOBLIN EMPEROR’s heart. He begins as a lonely, uncertain person possessed of a certain amount of internalized self-loathing thanks to his father’s treatment of him and his physical differences from the rest of the elven court (namely, he’s got grey skin, which we can assume his loathsome cousin taunted him with at every opportunity). Nobody’s so much as told him they like him since his mother died, and no sooner does he arrive at his new home but he’s told he can never, ever expect to view anyone as an equal. He’ll spend his days and weeks with people who’re paid to help him, he’ll marry a woman who’s politically expedient, and he’d durned well better use formal grammar at all times, because Emperors don’t get personal lives.

Despite all this, he tries. He has no desire to be Emperor, but he doesn’t half-ass the job. He works hard to find his feet, he accepts help when it’s offered, and he treats everyone fairly along the way.

And in the process, he wins people over.

It’s an utter joy to watch him gain such a strong support system. Most of the time, he doesn't even realize he's building good will; he just behaves like a decent person, with excellent results. I loved so many of the smaller scenes where his staff and his surviving family profess affection for him, often in ways that surprise him or go straight over his head. I spent much of the book with my heart in my throat, terrified that one of them was set to betray him. I desperately wanted him to get to keep these people. I wanted him to have friends, even if his station barred him from interacting with them in a traditionally friendly manner.

It delighted me, and warmed my heart, and every other happy cliche you can think of.

Seriously, y’all, THE GOBLIN EMPEROR made me fantastically happy on every level. I’m gonna need you to read it as soon as you possibly can, because books this wonderful deserve an enormous audience and you--yes, you!--deserve to be part of it.

I’ll note, too, that it’s a perfect standalone, so you needn’t worry about cliffhangers. Even though this particular story is complete in and of itself, though, I can’t help but hope Addison will write something else in this world. It's a fascinating place brimming with scope.

I'd also be happy with something set in a completely different, but equally gorgeous, world. I want MOAR ADDISON, is what I’m saying. Please, Book Gods? Please?

8 comments:

  1. Oh! I didn't realize this was by Sarah Monette.

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    1. Yep! She's adopted a pseudonym for future novels, at least, though I think she's still publishing short fiction under her actual name.

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  2. I have this! I didn't read it yet... Stupid slow March reading month. :(

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    1. :( I think there's an excellent chance you'll love it once you get to it.

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  3. Weird, I don't know how I missed this post! With you and Ana and Anastasia all raving raving about this book, I am going to get over my prejudice against Sarah Monette and give it a try. I'm kind of excited.

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    1. I promise you, this is nowhere near as dark as MELUSINE. You won't have the same issues with it.

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  4. Yay, Goblin Emperor! I for sure hope she writes more in this world, or at least more books like this one. IT'S SO GOOD.

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    1. YES YES YES. I'm fine with this being a standalone, since it works perfectly as such, but I'd love more stories with other characters.

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