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Book Review: The Goblin Emperor

January 20, 2016

The Goblin Emperor
By Katherine Addison
Tor Books
Library book, read on Kindle

Many thanks to Lisa for recommending this book. It was an intricate. baroque fantasy novel with extensive world-building , and apparently just what I needed to get me out of a winter-blues-fueled grumpy reading mood.

Maia is a half-goblin, half-elvish son of the emperor, relegated to a cold exile manor with a nasty and abusive guardian, when an accident kills off the rest of the line of succession, and puts him next in line to be emperor.

Telling the story from his point of view works really well, because there is a lot of world-building, strange words, cultural customs and dozens of characters to keep track of. He starts the story as an outsider and a newcomer to the imperial palace. His curiosity and the number of things he needs explained by advisors as he navigates a truly byzantine number of people and customs, serve the reader well to learn along with him. I would have liked a map of the palace grounds, or a linear diagram to figure out the allegiances and power hierarchies as I went.

It’s a testament to the level of worldbuilding that a novel that’s essentially about bureaucracy and meetings became engrossing enough to puzzle through.

I had fun with the fact that it’s essentially a coming-of-age story for him as a leader and as a person. I would have liked to see a couple more chapters where he got a decisively happy ending, but I think the point was made. To the author’s credit, I think Maia’s confusions and evolution paralleled my own moments of perplexity and having trouble getting the big picture of the social machinations, so that I felt like I got the hang of it about as Maia did, and really felt for him. I still would have liked a few maps and hierarchical diagrams.

I think this is a book that absolutely needs to be read as a paper book, rather than audiobook or e-book. I read it on Kindle, and not being able to flip back and forth kept me from resolving my confusion and getting the hang of the social structures. Ultimately, though, I think that worked to build sympathy for Maia as a character.

Sometimes, a fantasy author shows really clear outlines of what human cultures and symbols served as models for the fantasy world. Guy Gavriel Kay and Jacqueline Carey come to mind- their worlds are fantastically re-invented, but it’s relatively easy to see the European or Asian aesthetics and cultural touchstones they’ve borrowed. (To say nothing of the larger Fantasy World aesthetic and tradition that a lot of fantasy novels use to ground the worldbuilding.) And that can be a shorthand for the imagination, both the reader’s and the author’s.

Over the past few years, I fell out of the habit of reading really immersively strange fantasy. And I think it’s well past time I fixed that.

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