There was a lot of talk about this book last year. A 2015 Locus Best Novel award winner, a 2014 Hugo and Nebula nominee, noted favorably by authors like GRRM… in short, Addison’s novel received a lot of praise. Alternately classified as high fantasy or grimdark, this book seems to me something else entirely. Addison asserts that it’s a stand-alone novel and no direct sequels will be written (a full interview here), and it is a complete story, however, it ends in such a way that a sequel or sequels are quite possible. Very well, but what’s the story?
The Goblin Emperor tells the story of Maia, a young half-goblin, half-elf princeling who, due to an airship catastrophe that removed his father and his three half-brothers from the land of living, quite unexpectedly becomes the emperor of all elves. Despised and abused, kept away from the court for all his life, Maia must now find the will and wisdom to become a ruler in a world where many oppose or hate him on the grounds of what he is. Court intrigue, betrayal and acts of heroism ensue. If I were to sum it up in one sentence, I’d say “A male Cinderella story”.
Am I being unfair? No, just a bit sarcastic. You see, I liked the book quite a lot – at least at the beginning. It has a really likeable main character and a pleasant air of a fairytale. All characters are looked upon with warmth, understanding, sympathy – which is quite rare nowadays, with the grimdark in full ascendance :). The narrative flows fluently, the worldbuilding is nice, even if compiled from well-known and popular elements. The author spent a lot of time creating rules of elven savoir vivre and language, painstakingly differentiating between the goblin and the elven culture and belief, unobtrusively adding small bits of information about the environment and inhabiting it different societies.
So what went wrong? I mentioned fairytales for a reason. The Goblin Emperor is a pop fairytale. A fairytale, because it is a story rendered in black and white, with a strictly defined moral; a pop story, because it is also an intentionally uncomplicated story of a simplified world, a feel-good tale where the good is rewarded and the evil – punished, albeit not too harshly. A pop story, because apparently on the elven court the problem of utmost importance is the struggle for equal rights for women. Yeah, judging by recent fantasy works equal rights movement seems something inextricably linked with the discovery of steam engines, but still – in a situation where the emperor has been assassinated by the means of an intriguing clockwork bomb, where there are coup attempts one after another, where there’s a flurry of activity surrounding the choice of a new, untrained and uneducated emperor who must quickly master his role or perish, is the question of granting the women right to pursue their academic interest really that critical?
And so, to make space for the non-too-subtle overtures to gender, race and sexual orientation equality, the life of the court has been squeezed and bleached and devoid of almost all color. All we can see is just the everyday routine of the emperor who is far removed from his subjects – both literally and metaphorically. There’s a handful of characters who interact with the emperor on daily basis, another handful who can be glimpsed now and then – but we learn very little about them. The Goblin Emperor is in this sense more of a character study than a full-blown adventure novel.
Is there anything wrong with it? No, not really – but, first: from the publicity surrounding this book I expected something different, something more original, more complex, heck, just MORE; and second: this novel is oversimplified, even if we stay within the genre borders of a fairytale. It cannot compare with the best of them, be they Hesiod’s or La Fontaine’s or Andersen’s or Grimm’s or Perrault’s, or the finest folklore examples. Even if you compare it with Robin McKinley’s work, usually categorised as children’s literature – The Blue Sword or The Hero and the Crown – Addison’s novel falls flat and lifeless. It is too cute, too far removed from real life, and even when it touches upon the themes of bereavement, abuse and murder it does so in a cloyingly sweet way that kept me grinding my teeth in frustration. I really liked the protagonist, but as my reading progressed, the book was becoming increasingly more unrealistic. There’s a proverb “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” – and it proves its validity time and again. That’s exactly what happened to this book.
Despite all my critique The Goblin Emperor can be a pleasant read, especially for someone coming to fantasy from the direction of My Little Pony. It is well written (if you forget the chapter titles, they could be used in a math schoolbook for all their descriptive power and total lack of imagination) and it has that something which kept me turning the pages with a diminishing, but still existent, interest. I had a vague hope that there will be something more, and maybe that’s the reason for my feeling of disappointment – I mean, if you spend so much time creating the freaking rules of savoir vivre, shouldn’t you pay more attention to the way your narrative works? But maybe that’s just me and the little shriveled jaded critic’s heart I keep in a jar nearby…