The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison
Synopsis: An abused boy discovers he’s the heir to an empire, and learns that Friendship Is Magic.
Book Review: The strength of this book is its characters. They are superbly fleshed out and feel like real, complex people. Their interactions are realistic and compelling. This is particularly true of Addison’s portrayal of the protagonist (Maia), an abused young man. You strongly identify with him, and feel his trauma. It is emotional and touching and exquisitely well written.
Furthermore, Maia is extremely likable. You can’t help but fall in love with him. He’s relatable, and kind, and unsure, and doing the best he can, and the whole court is against him, and you want to see him survive and succeed.
The biggest weakness of this book is that Katherine loved her protagonist too much and decided to make a happy fairy tale for him. The core conflict of this book is Maia vs his drunken, abusive caretaker (Setheris). When it’s discovered Maia’s the new Emperor and they are both whisked away to the capital, you see this dynamic taking it’s true shape – now Maia has the power to punish Setheris, but Setheris is a disgraced noble and wise in the ways of the court, and immediately starts instructing Maia in what he must do to survive. He becomes Maia’s only lifeline in an environment of deadly court intrigue, and the naïve Maia has to rely on him as much as he hates him, etc etc.
…Except that doesn’t happen. Very quickly after the novel begins this action stops, Setheris is ushered off the stage, and we never see him again. This happens fairly early in the book. The entire emotional thrust of the story is neutered, and is never replaced by anything compelling.
After that point NOTHING HAPPENS EVER AGAIN. Every conflict that’s introduced is immediately resolved. Maia is unfailingly kind and gentle with everyone, and very earnest in all his dealings. He wins over everyone because he’s such a nice guy, and all of his problems are solved due to how much everyone comes to love him. Every single chapter is basically Maia demonstrating how kind he is, having heartfelt conversations with people, and winning their admiration. This goes on for over 300 pages. It was insufferably boring, and by the end I was only reading a handful of sentences from each page. This would have made a fantastic novelette. Drawing this out into a full-length novel was not a wise choice. If this book could be summarized by quoting a character within it, it would be “You must learn to take care, Serenity, lest we wear your ears out with our endless talking.” Not Recommended.
Book Club Review: I don’t have much to add. Some people will like the book quite a bit just because Maia is so nice and relatable. Everyone can joke about the ridiculous number of extremely similar names, but in the end there isn’t much to talk about. We spent most of the time talking about other goings-on in our lives, and the SF world in general. I don’t see how this would be a conversation starter, so Not Recommended.
Puppy Note: I expect the Puppies will mostly be as bored as I was by this, but ya never know. I see why some people would like the book, it’s cozy and safe. I’m one of those people who doesn’t think awards should ever go to safe fiction. I hope at least one of the Hugo-nominated books rises to the challenge of saying something interesting this year.
You want an example of a book where nothing happens, I recommend “Starhawk” by Jack McDevitt. 389 pages of nothing happening. First contact with an alien life form, made into nothing. I read all the way through to the end just to see if he could keep the flatness going, and he did. A whole novel as flat as Nebraska.
I agree with your review. Great characterisation, good world building, but the story didn’t draw me in, and it became a slog towards the end.
The biggest problem with the book is that Maia is playing on easy mode – there were other things that happened after Setheris (the coup, the assassination, the investigation), but these threats were resolved was too easily. The intrigue isn’t very deep – I can’t rate it higher than Wheel of Time Book 8 (the second worst WoT). It doesn’t really work as children’s literature, either, Harry Potter faced far more challenges than this.
The opening of the book set off my message fiction alarm bells (mixed race and disabled – here we go), but I was pleasantly surprised it didn’t turn out that way. In fact, his social awkwardness probably held him back more. The book stresses the importance of treating people as people, it’s the source of Maia’s strength and a common weakness shared by all of his adversaries. He becomes an advertisement for virtue ethics against (crude) utilitarianism. I could go on at length about how I really like the message, but taking a step back, am I liking the book as message fiction because I like the message?
In conclusion: Good characterisation, interesting world, but no plot. Below Three-Body-Problem.
> I could go on at length about how I really like the message, but taking a step back, am I liking the book as message fiction because I like the message?
That would be horrible. ;)