REVIEW: THE GOBLIN EMPEROR
This is a review that I've been putting off for a while now mostly because of my mixed reactions to it's level of complexity and the amount of time the story takes to ramp up. But now that I've had ample time to think on it, I think I'm finally ready to share my thoughts. I read THE GOBLIN EMPEROR by Katherine Addison for the 2015 BookTube SFF Readalongs and had a hard time getting through it initially. I set it aside for a little while so I could read other things, not so much because this was bad, it was just rather heavy to get through and I had some other reading goals at the time. I did come back to this though and am very glad I did. My impression of the fantasy novel after reading the first half was that it was a somewhat overly complex world filled with a lot of dreary political intrigue and characters that were too cold to connect with in the ways that matter. I found myself struggling with the utter hopelessness of it all and didn't find myself routing for anyone, even the main character, Maia. Upon my return to the story, I did gradually get into a spot where the characters began to show a bit more humanity (a funny notion given their being goblins and elves) and the plot points began to weave together. It's the kind of book that probably takes a bit too long to pull readers in, but those who are patient enough to stick with it will likely be happy that they did.
HOW I RATED IT
4/5 Although I initially had a hard time getting through this, what seemed like a miserable and hopeless tale gave way to one of the more heartwarming stories I've read in a long time. The slowness of the first half is definitely a necessary evil in order to feel the back half's full impact, but there are some other minor woes I had along the way as well.
The cast in this story is ginormous! There are so so many characters and most of them are recurring in one way or another. There are honestly so many that I couldn't even hope to try and list them in this review. It doesn't help that they have absolutely absurd names that while unique and fitting to the world, were way to bizarre for me to remember a lot of the time. This made figuring out who certain people were very difficult as I'd only memorized a handful of their names. I know fantasy names can be tough and yes it was nice to not have generic European names used, but the spelling of these people's identities was a bit too much to resonate with me which is a shame since I usually like stories that have a lot of minor characters running around. For a good portion of the novel, they all also kind of felt like the same type of person. The world of the court is one of cold calculation and rigid discipline which doesn't leave much room for basically any of the aspects of a character that make a fictional persona worthwhile. Eventually, the differing personalities start to show through as Maia breaks down those walls through both intentional and unintentional means. Even Maia himself has never really known love aside from the love he received from his long deceased mother. This makes him an equally dislikable character at times which did not help me at all when trying to connect with this story.
What I did find interesting from the get-go was the fact that no humans seem to exist in this world. It's mostly just elves and goblins which form this sort of black-white racial tension. There's definitely some interesting commentary on race and sovereignty though I'm not sure if the author was making any deliberate statements on racial issues or not. Maia is effectively an outcast to both races because he is half of each. This is particularly troublesome given his father's royal elven blood and the fact that he is the sole heir to the throne once his father and brothers die at the start of the story. I liked the inequality that's depicted here, both in terms of race as well as sex. It was certainly painful to see discrimination featured so heavily in a novel, but watching characters overcome it made for a very interesting and rewarding plot point. All of these characters both elf and goblin have a lot of personal challenges to overcome and I think that watching their journey through this process is part of what eventually redeemed them to me as a reader.
I've seen this described as a steampunk fantasy setting, but in actuality it's far more of a Victorian-esque fantasy kingdom that readers mostly just get to see the inside of. There's no major landscapes which are explored, nor are there really very many steampunk elements to speak of. There are airships seen and mentioned throughout as well as a major clockwork invention that becomes a big plot point later on, but for the most part this is just a story of court intrigue and political chess. Now, that doesn't make this any less of a novel, it's just something to be aware of going in. The main fantasy element is in the fact that all of the characters are either goblin or elf, or in Maia's case, a combination of the two races. Aside from some skin, eye, and hair color and texture differences, both species are pretty similar though it seems as though goblins are also generally shorter than elves. What is most enjoyable about having the characters belong to mythical races is that this opens up a host of different visual elements that you wouldn't get with an all human cast. The use of ear position to convey emotion and the unique eye colors that both species can have were my favorite things about the author's choice to use these species and they definitely made the world feel like something I'd never get anywhere else.
Although readers never really get to step outside the court much, it still serves as a wonderfully large and exotically beautiful fantasy location. Everything in the court is extravagant. From the robes worn by royalty, to the glittering halls, and even the dinnerware, everything is described in the most expensive-sounding way I can imagine. This is a world of material excess and it's impressive how Addison can maintain this lavish veneer throughout the novel. The magnanimity of the court also helps make sense of the initially superficial characters and it's colorful vibrancy offers a nice contrast to the shady political dealings that take place.
The point of the story is really that we get to see these characters grow. Their icy exteriors do slowly melt away and the reward is in seeing how the court warms up under Maia's rule. The main problem with this type of narrative is that you kind of have to start off by disliking everyone in order to see them grow and become better people. I have a lot of respect for the author's desire conduct this kind of transformation on such a large scale, but the major drawback is that it takes her a long time to set it all up. This is one of those situations where I don't know that I have a proper critique in terms of what I would have liked to see done differently, I guess I just wanted to have some little shreds of hope dropped a bit earlier on so I had something more concrete to cling to while it all unfolded. It's actually pretty incredible how different the mood is in the first half from how things go in the second. After the grueling first half, things look brighter and brighter and I began to feel much more invested in it all. I just wish this turnover would have hit me a little sooner than it did because I might have been able to finish it a little quicker and realize what a great story this actually is a bit sooner than I did.
Slow and steady wins this race. This is simultaneously the most rewarding and most dreary book I have ever read. Things take a long time to get into a spot where they can unravel into something special. It's hard not to admire Addison's capacity to construct a complex set of personal development arcs yet also easy to criticize her for the overarching narrative's lack of focus early on. This is the type of book you just have to be patient with when going in. It's not as fast paced or snappy as other stories in this genre nor is the cast as instantly iconic as many fans of fantasy are probably used to. Good things do come to those who wait in this case though and the happy parts probably felt a lot more compelling because of how bleak I found things to be at the onset. If you like stories with a lot of depth and complexity and are okay with waiting things out for a while, then I think you'll like this a lot. If you're looking for a story with a faster paced or a bit more instant gratification on the narrative or character development side of things, then you may struggle with this. Ultimately though I'd recommend it to anyone since the story does end up being quite moving.
THE GOBLIN EMPEROR can be found in whatever bookish format you desire on Amazon.