Review: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: January 28 to February 28, 2016
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He remembered the moment when his thoughts had inverted themselves—that shift from not being able to please everyone to not trying—and the way that change had enabled him to see past the maneuverings and histrionics of the representatives to the deeper structures of the problem.

Good story, great world, and memorable characters.

This is one of the few books I’ve read so far this year that’s going straight to my favorite list, and one of the very few high fantasy books I like despite it being mostly about court drama, courtly politics, and a dysfunctional ruling family. And it’s a testament to Katherine Addison’s (Sarah Monette’s) writing; she definitely knows how to make courtly life interesting, even for someone like me who hates fictional court politics–I don’t care much for actual court politics either but that’s another matter entirely.

That said, the beginning of the book was hard for me to get into, mainly because the language. It takes awhile to get into the rhythm of the writing and get used to various names and titles of the primary and secondary characters. Once you get it down, though, you won’t even notice it anymore.

The story opens with Maia, a discarded heir to the elven empire, out in the country living the simple life of a peasant. We find out right away that the emperor, the crown prince, and several of their close relatives, who were also in line for the throne, have died in a freak accident. This then elevates Maia to the throne, which he accepts albeit reluctantly, but first he must overcome a court full of nobles who despise him for his half goblin blood and being the Emperor’s unwanted son.

The setting is steampunk but believable steampunk, with believable magic and technology that’s reminiscent of the industrial revolution but set in a fantasy world, but not like that fantasy turn-of-the-century London or Wild West setting that we see so often in the “steampunk” sub-genre. The prose is lush and a joy to read without being melodramatic or maudlin, although it helps to have a main character who’s easy to root for. The writing as a whole definitely gets stronger, just as the world building gets more vivid, once Maia takes the throne and faces off his adversaries and overcomes various courtly obstacles.

However, the pacing is rather slow, especially near the beginning. The plot doesn’t really get going until Maia gets further entangled in the court drama. I almost abandoned the book twice before then, but I stuck with it because I liked Maia–he’s kind, rather naive and too trusting, but not stupid–and I knew where the story was heading and that there’d be a satisfying ending waiting for me. And the ending does not disappoint. I’m glad I stuck around because it was very fitting for the emperor Maia becomes and the long road he traveled to get there.

Overall, a good story that leaves you in a good mood. I’d recommend it for anyone who’s looking for fantasy but is fed up with grimdark.

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