Monday, July 14, 2014

Review: "The Goblin Emperor" by Katherine Addison

When the emperor and his chosen heirs are killed in a fatal airship accident, the elven crown falls to the last person anyone considered: his youngest, least-favored son, raised in exile and all but forgotten by the court.

In the blink of an eye, half-goblin Maia becomes the Emperor Edrehasivar VII. He would be the first to agree that he has no allies, no proper training, and a rather short life expectancy.

But when there are only two paths open to him--to be emperor, or to be dead--Maia chooses to repair the devastation of his father's legacy, and to leave his own.

And for all his lack of polish, Maia is no fool--and no stranger to living in a den of vipers. Those who expect Maia to be a simple puppet to be manipulated and replaced have a nasty surprise in store.

  4.9 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

The Lord Chancellor's expression was, if only for a moment, distinctly pained. It was clear he had not expected an eighteen-year-old emperor, raised in virtual isolation, to provide him with any contest at all. Sometime, Chavar, Maia thought, you must try living for ten years with a man who hates you and whom you hate, and see what it does to sharpen your wits.
I almost didn't make it past the third chapter of this book.

Fortunately, I kept going, and discovered my favorite novel of the summer. I did not know how much I needed a book like this in my life.

I want to give The Goblin Emperor 5/5 stars. I really do. I love the story and characters so much, and I'm impressed with Katherine Addison's execution of the plot. But I have to remember that the book is impenetrably dense at the start with fantasy conlang, very little of which is guessable from the context.

Addison flings dozens of made-up words at the reader all at once--many of which sound very similar--and defines none of them. Mix in the names of characters, who are sometimes referred to by their last names (which the reader might not have known), and sometimes by a fantasy title which ALSO looks like a name, and it's as complicated and confusing as anything penned by famous dead Russians. Ulis and Uleris, Nurevis and Eshevis, Barizhan and Bazherin--you can see why I nearly gave up!

(There is a glossary/character listing at the back, as I eventually found, but it's not as helpful as it could be. It lists characters only by their last name--which, again, the reader may not know--and tells nothing about them, only what family they belong to. I suppose Addison didn't want to give away her plot twists in the glossary, but sometimes I just need to remember who this person is and where have we met them before.)

What worked for me--and what I suggest to you, dear reader--is to just glide, if possible, for the first reading. The main players have distinctive names, at least, and the plot spools itself out in perfectly understandable terms, even if you might not be able to predict the various betrayals. If you can suspend a need to know everything, you'll be hooked by Maia's story by the end of the fourth chapter.

From then on you're golden.

The setting and the world of The Goblin Emperor is a breath of fresh air into the admittedly stale air of the fantasy genre. Elves and goblins mingle in a clockwork-heavy steampunk city which is, in its fashion and customs, more reminiscent of Ancient China than anything else. A little magic seems to exist, but is a background set piece rather than any focus of the story. The focus is on court intrigue--while never losing sight of the characters who make up such tangled webs.

I have  spent the past two weeks telling all my friends about The Goblin Emperor and all the little moments they have to look forward to. The book is thick with witty manipulations, sparkling characters, gemlike descriptions, and--my favorite--every moment when twitchy, worried, out-of-his-depth Maia finds another ally.

Readers who look between the lines will find that, within this story of a new emperor consolidating his power and wrestling his rebellious country into order, there is another story: one about an abused child developing the means and the support to defend and redefine himself. Maia suffers from an anxiety disorder, which I nearly missed on the first reading, as neither he nor the author draw attention to it openly. His efforts to control his disorder to avoid showing weakness are gut-twistingly intense to read.

But "pity" is not the primary emotion the reader holds toward Maia Drazhar, Edrehasivar VII. "Pity" is not a staying emotion, nor one which holds respect. I set this book down at last, with great reluctance, full of admiration for its protagonist. This is not a story of cringing, but of overcoming.

"Would you spare them all punishment?"

"No," Maia said, and struggled with it. The Witness waited. "In our inmost and secret heart, which you ask us to bare to you, we wish to banish them as we were banished, to a cold and lonely house, in the charge of a man who hated us. And we wish them trapped there as we were trapped."

"You consider that unjust, Serenity?"

"We consider it cruel," Maia said. "And we do not think that cruelty is ever just."

It's that emotional core which makes this book so valuable to me. Of course, the intrigue is fun, and the high court culture with all of its strictures and complications is delightful. But all the clever twists in the world do not compare to the slow, dawning realization (on the reader's part, as Maia's anxiety makes him rather an unreliable narrator) of how many people are willing to be on this new emperor's side. Or when Maia feels that his life is, for the first time, "not merely a matter of surviving from one hostile encounter to the next."

The writing of the book is rather elevated in a way I seldom find, where little is spelled out for the reader and emotions and opinions are rarely dwelled upon. Addison's turns of phrase are eye-catching and fresh without being self-conscious, each line perfectly chosen.

Some of my favorite metaphors include Maia's secretary described as being "as triumphant as a retriever presenting his master with a dead duck," and a courtier whom Maia snaps at looking "as if she'd just been bitten by a cushion"; Maia "dropped formality as deliberately as smashing a plate" and at one beautiful moment "locked up like sabotaged clockwork, as if her words were a handful of sand."

Take a moment and really wallow in that last line. That's characterization and setting all at once.

The speech of the characters and the writing of the book itself mirror the atmosphere of the elven court, full of comic understatement and dry asides. Rare the book where character, setting, dialogue, and prose complement each other in such perfect harmony. The dialogue is occasionally archaic, using "an" for "if" and at one point "liefer" for "rather," but it flows smoothly and adds to the nuances of conversations, if the reader tracks whether formal or informal pronouns are being used.

How much can I yell about my great delight in Maia's four bodyguards, or the blandly businesslike actual dueling champion he is set to marry? How much did I wail when that unloved child, now Emperor Edrehasivar VII, couldn't fathom the thought that his country wished to celebrate his birthday?

Best of all, at last I have a book whose ending leaves me not the least bit disappointed or hungry.

Leaving aside the fantasy conlang issues, I cannot praise The Goblin Emperor enough. I have read it an unprecedented three times in a row, and I look forward to acquiring my own copy to dog-ear it and underline to my heart's content. It has also reminded me to pick up C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner series again, as the only other story which is remotely similar to this grand, unique, intelligent, and emotionally memorable book.

Complexity of Writing: 5/5
Quality of Writing: 5/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Bechdel Test: fail
Diverse Cast:  pass
Content Warning: murder, ritual suicide, emotional and physical abuse of a child, mention of sexual assault

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