The Goblin Emperor
by Katherine Addison
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This is the first book from Katherine Addison, although that is a pseudonym. Under her real name, Sarah Monette, she has written at least seven other novels, three of which were in collaboration with Elizabeth Bear. Since fantasy is not my preferred genre I have not read any of those, nor had I previously heard of her under either name. If she wrote science fiction using one of them it would be understandable, but why dilute your literary presence by doing fantasy under both names? The Goblin Emperor has been nominated for a Nebula, Hugo and Locus award, the latter for Best Fantasy Novel. Since I will be voting for the Hugos this year I needed to read it, but if this had been a previous year I would only have read it if it won either a Nebula or Hugo. It didn't cost me anything for the book itself, other than the membership fee to Sasquan, since they provided it in the Hugo Reading Packet. It has received many rave reviews as well as predominately five star ratings on Amazon. I rate it no higher than three, and that's being generous. If I was forced to limit my description of the book to one word, that word would be "tedious."
I grew tired of the main character being addressed as Serenity. It could have been alternated with an occassional "Your Grace" or "Your Majesty." I would also have appreciated an alternate description of where the majority of the action takes place, but there are times when the Untheileneise Court is mentioned several times on the same page, if not the same paragraph or sentence. There has been no word yet of any future sequel to this book, but I suspect there will be. If so, Ms. Addison failed in creating enough interest for me to continue with the story, and her attempts at world-building are inadequate and confusing. If intended as a stand-alone novel the failure is even more apparent. Her protagonist, Maia Drazhar, the half-goblin, half-elf successor to his estranged father's throne, is an interesting but woefully underdeveloped character. He doesn't do much throughout the book other than react to the actions of others. What little plot exists is spread too thin, with many potential avenues left unexplored.
Too much time is wasted on descriptions of palace ritual, on court etiquette, wardrobe and jewelry, without the background information on the players for those things to matter. The most confusing aspect is the names of characters and places. Most are long and hard to pronounce, with many being very similar. It is hard to keep the characters straight since in one scene they will be identified by their given name/surname, in another it is with an honorific. Most of the names and honorifics have unique prefixes or suffixes depending on whether they are male or female, married or single. There are two appendices at the back of the book, one mainly on pronunciation, the other a list of characters and places, but it's not complete. If you want to read this book in print, definitely check those first, and it would be a good idea to make a few notes to refer to later. It is not easy to continually check those on a Kindle. Only elves and goblins (and mixed-race) are mentioned. Are these the only sentient races? Is there no world of Men beyond the horizons? Is this another planet, or some lost epoch of Earth? I have no clue. Other than the mention of the characters' skin color or other features, and the way their ears reflect their emotional state, the story could just as well have been about a mythical human kingdom, with several sub-plots seemingly shoe-horned in as a way of making the story relevant to current social and political debate.
The characters exhibit distinctly human traits and characteristics, so why make them mythical creatures, which even if they were real would likely have completely different habits and motivations? The only thing those elements do for the story is point out how Maia is different than his ancestors, and that his reign is likely to be a more enlightened one. But the way the author describes the political landscape and the majority of the other characters, there was no reason to assume Maia would have survived long enough to be crowned Emperor, let alone make drastic changes in his world. In my opinion, the quality of the writing is not award worthy, but from what I gather perusing other sites I am in the minority.
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