There exists a book that I saw mixed opinions about. Some called it “shit” or “disappointing”, others called it legendary and epic. So what to do? Only one way to find out: I read it. And I believe: both of the aforementioned types of reviews are not really doing the subject matter justice.
First class premise
The Goblin Emperor by one Katherine Addison (a nom de plume of one Sarah Monette) starts from a unique and captivating situation. An unloved and slightly embarrassing son of the Emperor of Elvenkind, incidentally the offspring of the short-lived marriage of the Elven Emperor with a Goblin Princess, lives a dreary life in a faraway castle out in the bland nowhere-land and expects to stay there until he dies. But then, all of a sudden, the line of ascension gets, well, in trouble, and our forgotten half-elf is called upon to sit the throne, because he jumped from number ump-teen to number 1 in one fell swoop.
Why is this unique and captivating?
Because the young goblin has little clue about the intricacies of court life. He gets thrown into palace etiquette, high nobility fashion, stilted parlance and politics domestic and foreign like so much fresh meat to the lions. It is by sheer luck that his protector, relegated to being forgotten just like the half-goblin, has taken the pains to school his ward in the basics to while away the time.
In other words, we, the reader, get thrown in with him and experience with our hero how any normal impulse can lead to shocked gasps and hostile glances by all the others who know so much better.
The author manages to capture this feeling of loneliness in company, being the odd one out at center stage, very well. The main character cherishes the moments when he can have alone time, but he also yearns for company, and it is easy to feel it with him.
We do not really get a good grasp of that empire, which is a bit sad for a story about an emperor But it is also very fitting and supports the premise, because the emperor has no freedom to experience the empire. Whatever comes before the throne gets there through the voice of someone. The emperor is shielded from the real world, so it is sad, but authentic that we do not get a clear picture of the empire.
Few stories would have the discipline to stay boxed in on that prison of a throne like that: Even walking down two flights of stairs is generally an extraordinary expedition that throws court procedures into disarray.
The writer, Sarah Monette / Katherine Addison has a good hand for bringing different characters to life. A wide range of rather contrasting persons are portrayed in a very believable way, and the web of relationships that is a) uncovered and b) develops after Maia shows up in the capital feel real. There are people with whom the main character has little interaction, and they remain slightly opaque, and there are other people that are basically with him day and night, and we get to know them intimately – all very natural.
There are some other parts that are visited, or touched on, albeit very fast.
I am not sure how exactly to evaluate these added topics. They have an air material that was added later. I will trust a number of possible future guest writers with the correct street cred to weigh that question authoritatively.
The story covers quite a long time in a relatively short volume, and it does that by skipping a month or three here and there.
That does make sense, and is generally well handled by explaining a regular trot settling in that makes the months fly by without any highlights that stand out.
But it makes it more akin to a collection of mostly regular, but slightly disjointed shorts than a classic novel.
And finally, language
The author goes to the trouble of developing a system of nomenclature and forms of address, which is, for one, necessary, for otherwise the book would fall short, as the topic demands court etiquette and high culture, but not a human one. And yet, for another, it feels slightly unsatisfying to me. I cannot quite lay my finger on it. Maybe a linguist can deliver a more solid judgement.
Verdict: Good enough to be recommended
Still: It works, it has dedicated fans who draw pictures of the main character to post on the internet, and even though it is not a perfect gem, it certainly deserves to be read, and I can see a potential for sequels.
In short: The premise is outstanding and the execution inspiring and well worth looking at.