The quality of my TBR list has improved greatly of late thanks to Jenny Crusie. Last month she added a new weekly feature, Good Book Thursdays, to her blog, www.arghink.com, and invited her online community to recommend something good to read.
Jenny’s followers are a discerning group, so when Katherine Addison’s novel The Goblin Emperor collected a slew of recommendations, I bought it and bumped it up to the top of my list. I’m glad I did. The story is fantasy, which I love, arguably Young Adult (not so much my thing), and with only the barest smidgeon of the possibility of a future love story (bah!), but I really enjoyed it.
The Goblin Emperor is a coming-of-age story about eighteen year-old Maia, half-elf, half-goblin, who unexpectedly becomes Emperor of the Elflands following the death of his father and three of his siblings in an airship crash. He’s the only child of a political mixed marriage, raised in exile by his mother and after her death, by a bitter, bullying cousin. Maia comes to the dangerous, formal and highly politicized Imperial Court without friends or allies and has to decide whom to trust and just what kind of Emperor he wants to be—assuming he survives long enough to make his mark. He quickly discovers that his father’s airship was sabotaged, and he’s smart enough to realize the murderer is likely to be close at hand.
If you’re looking for a classic goal, motivation, conflict-type story with a powerful antagonist, a dark moment and a powerful catharsis, The Goblin Emperor may not be the story for you. It has a tight structure, and a definite progression, but there is no Big Bad. Maia’s antagonist is the Imperial Court, which pushes back as effectively as any individual. The story’s turning points are really subtle as the consequences of Maia’s choices start to become manifest. Small victories mount up and gain momentum, like pebbles triggering an avalanche, until outcomes which would have seemed impossible at the beginning of the book start to feel right and even inevitable.
The worldbuilding is excellent. The Imperial Court is gorgeous and richly drawn—formal and ritualistic, with fabulous clothes and jewels, priceless hair ornaments, gorgeously oppressive interiors and a conspiracy round every corner. The setting is beautifully described and feels a little like steampunk-meets-Shogun. The language also works—mostly it’s formal, which means that Maia’s occasional slip into informality becomes charged with significance.
One aspect I really, really liked is that the story deals with important contemporary themes in a thoughtfully subtle fashion. Maia’s a dark-skinned half-breed among a court of pale, pure-bred Elves; royal women are chattels, to be married off without their consent in a constant cycle of political manoeuvring; servants and the working classes exist to serve and obey—it’s considered not only unnecessary, but wrong to consider their feelings or their wellbeing, let alone to treat them fairly or establish friendships with them. Discrimination and inequality are everywhere, but Maia (and the author) confront the issues without ever ascending the soap box.
The only thing I didn’t love about the book was the naming and kinship structures. I bet they’re solidly grounded in research, and the names sound as Elvish as Tolkien, but they were impossible to pronounce and hard to remember. After awhile I stopped trying to keep them straight and just let the story flow. When I got to the end I went right back to the beginning and read the book again, and I found the names easier second time around. I should add that the book contains an appendix with a naming and pronunciation guide, which I did not read. I’m not that geeky. If I’d wanted an instruction manual, I wouldn’t have been reading fiction 😉
To my mind, simplifying the names somewhat would have helped the reader without detracting from the story, but I assume the author had her reasons for choosing not to. It won’t stop me from reading the book again, or buying the sequel should she choose to write one.
Maia is a good young man in an impossibly difficult situation. As a protagonist he’s incredibly sympathetic. It’s easy to care about him and to keep reading, as if that might somehow keep him safe. The secondary characters are also well-rounded and intelligently drawn, with plenty of potential for further development.
I think the real key to the book’s engaging quality is something more, though. Lisa Cron says in her book Story Genius: “Stories let us vicariously try out difficult situations we haven’t yet experienced to see what it would really feel like, and what we’d need to learn in order to survive.” My guess is that many readers have been in a version of Maia’s situation, or fear they might be one day. I remember years ago, at work, being promoted to a senior position for the first time and trying to do a good job while working out who to trust and how the corporate politics worked. The book reminded me of those days, and I think that may be the biggest reason this story resonated with me.
So…what have you been reading lately? Did you like it? Why?