Review: The Goblin Emperor

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The Goblin Emperor
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was… nice? OK? I really have a hard time finding much about it that I didn’t like, but there isn’t much of particularly exceptional either. (Except for Csevet. Csevet rules.)

(mild spoilers follow)

Maia is a particularly nice main character who main characteristic is being nice. Granted, I’m extremely glad that he has enough political knowledge not to be the stupid kind of nice who makes the kind of choices a 3-year old would see are wrong (a staple of many lesser fantasy novels). But his life as a recluse (pre-start of the book) and Emperor later means he doesn’t get much in the way of personal character development outside of the throne. He doesn’t read. He doesn’t dance. He has no hobbies. He only gets to start riding because his grandfather basically forces a horse on him. Yes, his ignorance is part of the plot points, but it also makes him a bit of a blank slate beyond his good heart.

Many other things feel like a “good idea, need to expand it more”. We know there’s steam and clockwork in this world, and yet they use airships rather than, say, trains. Why? Geographical difficulties? Lack of proper terrain? We know there’s magic, and a whole caste of magic users, but the only time it’s used is for a sleeping cantrip and offscreen, in the space between two paragraphs. We know there’s another race, close enough for interbreeding but treated as different/foreign/inferior, but it’s not clear how far down this racism goes.
Similarly, other main characters, like Cala, get enough hints at characterization that it gets frustrating when they do not follow.

On the other hand, Addison lets some of her worldbuilding get the better hand of her, creating extremely cumbersome names and making it difficult to follow who is who, when family names and honorific titles change at every minute. I mean, I know my D’ni and I dabble plenty in Sindarin, but even I have an issue when the first name I meet in the book is Untheileneise and it goes downhill from there.
It also doesn’t help in identifying with Maia: to him, one of the main difficulties is the gap between what he knows (formal etiquette) and what he doesn’t (the realities of life at court, political alliances, and so on; to us, however, it’s all a jumbled mix. Actually, we could probably spot the intrigues well before him, if we could just remember what an Os’merrem was.

But the main fault of the book, IMHO, is that there is a constant lack of tension, either actual or implied. Part of this is Maia’s incredibly level-headed approach at things, and we’re seeing everything from his point of view. Part of it is that the threats just appear, rather than build up, and most of the rest of the story is lost on political etiquette, rulings, balls and whatnot, like in an elven version of Downton Abbey.
On one hand it makes for an extremely leisured read; on the other it also makes it kind of forgettable.

(Disclaimer: I got an ebook copy of this book as part of the Hugo 2015 reader packet)

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