Katherine Addison, The Goblin Emperor (2014)

goblinemperorThere 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…

Score: 6,5/10

8 thoughts on “Katherine Addison, The Goblin Emperor (2014)

  1. piotrek

    That’s actually a rather discouraging review… until now, the only thing I held against this novel was its cover 😉
    I’m not saying popular literature shouldn’t touch problems of our times, but subtly, and without descending into preaching and only if the author manages to fit them seamlessly into his/her creation.
    So… the book just moved way back on my TBR list…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree that The Goblin Emperor is less of an action book and more focussed on the characters involved, with the main focus the lovely Maia. I really enjoyed this story, flaws and all.

    The problems of our times were the problems of history too. The setting felt like an East meets West, steam-driven cusp of an Industrial, and possibly political, revolution. I felt it especially reflected the issues faced by the West in the late 1800’s and start of the 1900’s – the rights to a full education for women, the rights of the middle and working classes, etc. And touched on issues that are still faced now, such as homophobia. But these issues were part of the story, and didn’t detract from the more action-leaning scenes. It added depth to the world-building and showed Maia’s consideration for others. Rather than have him focus on the threats to his life – which were a real and present danger – he thought of others and how he could help them.

    My only issue was there wasn’t time or pages enough to give room to deep-dive into the issues you mentioned or get to know the characters more, especially Maia.

    Yes, I even find the cover rather charming.

    And My Little Pony is great – Friendship IS Magic 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much! 😀 I totally agree that it’s a character-driven story, and well-meaning to boot. And I agree that all the modern problems existed back in the end of 1800s and the early 1900s. Still, I will stick to my opinion 😆 as I still think it was too cloyingly sweet for all that it was well-meant – like Care Bears.

      As I look back at the novel I remember all the flaws I mentioned – though I admit part of my disappointment stemmed undoubtedly from the fact that I expected something different 😉 And part of that stemmed from the feeling of being talked down to throughout most of the novel.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Of course, I don’t aim to change your opinion 😀 I just wanted to give the book a fighting chance amongst readers who may be put off by your well-written and detailed opinion. We can’t all like or love the same things, and don’t. But Maia deserves more friends. Honestly, I expected something different too, but really enjoyed what I found.

        Care Bears?? Really? Lol. I preferred your My Little Pony comment haha 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Heh, fair enough 😉 It is one of my more ravaging reviews (which btw is a cool tag name :P) of a book not half-bad, and I’d probably couch it in more friendly terms if I wrote it today. I think I just don’t fit into the intended audience type; it still is for me a book in which the main character, though absolutely no Mary Sue, is loved too much by the author 😉
          For balance I’d suggest Chris’s review over at Calmgrove: https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/2016/11/11/maia/.
          Additionally, there is a slightly superficially similar book – in themes, if not in tone – that I quite enjoyed: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T Anderson 😉 It tackles a similar topic in a totally different manner.

          To be fair, I was never one for My Little Pony, whereas I did watch a few episodes of Care Bears as a child (however much I’d prefer to forget it) 😉

          Liked by 1 person

          1. You should use that tag for all similar posts! Great name. I’ll keep an eye out for The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, which I’ve not heard of before.

            New My Little Pony and spin-offs are good. Care Bears hasn’t changed much…so same 😉

            As ever, enjoyed our conversation. Looking forward to reading more of your older blog posts 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Yeah, I might do that! 😀 I’ll be writing a review soon, it’s a funny little book in which illustrations (which are superb) play an important role.

              I doubt we’ll cover Care Bears in our nostalgia posts – I’m not very nostalgic about them 😉 I did notice however that the ponies’ shape changed over the years quite a bit! Like LEGO minifigures for girls, I’d say 😉

              Thank you! And ditto!
              It’s good to talk about books and I always appreciate our discussions 😀

              Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Katherine Addison, The Witness for the Dead (2021) – Re-enchantment Of The World

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