The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, published April 1st 2014 by Tor Books, is both a Nebula Award Nominee and a Hugo Award Nominee. As always, before I get into my views on the book, I give you the publisher's summary.
The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an "accident," he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.
Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.
Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend... and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne – or his life.
So let's get the 600 pound gorilla out of the room. This is a story you have read before. It's done to death. But you know what, it's a good story. That's why it's done so often. Everyone loves to see the underdog triumph. We all want to be told that, no matter our shortcomings, we too can succeed. It is a subject we as human beings never get tired of reading (or hearing) because it gives us hope. It allows us to believe we can be more that the sum of our boring, pathetic lives, and we can all rise above our detractors and shortcomings. We can all be heroes (or heroines!) if only given a chance. Pfffffffft.
Okay, I'll stop there. I won't turn this review into a philosophical debate - you're welcome. But there is no denying the appeal of these rags to riches stories. And Katherine Addison, given name Sarah Monette, writes the story well. It flows off the page (or out of the speaker as in my case.) It fills your head with wonderful images and emotions that are not necessarily yours. Her protagonist, and the other characters, come to life as she weaves the intricate web of a court life worthy of Queen Elizabeth I's reign. From the structure of language usage by the various characters based on their station and relationship to the new emperor, to the descriptions of those characters as they present themselves, the author gives you a world you can believe even though the personages are elves and goblins. This is truly a high fantasy novel.
But that is not all. This book also impinges on the steampunk sub-genre of science fiction! That was the most pleasant surprise in the story. Though the court life is 16th century, and the overall theme is high fantasy, the technology is most certainly of Queen Victoria's time! They have dirigibles, steam-powered factories and telescopes worthy of Sir Friedrich William Herschel. There was a careful consideration within these chapters of magic and metal, steam and spirit, that was quite refreshing. Rather than work on the premise of how our world would be if certain technologies had not been developed, Katherine Addison takes on the question of how a high fantasy world would look if elves and goblins developed them? It never took over the story, but it played an integral part and that was fascinating.
It is the alloy of these two genres, and the well written character interactions, that kept me riveted. Because frankly, there was not much else in the story I did not see coming a mile away. I never really feared for the young Emperor. Violence in the story was dispassionately delivered from a distance by the author, as if she didn't want to get her hands bloodied. I never doubted those who personally served the new emperor and who had any sort of dialog and character development. The betrayals perpetrated were by those characters who'd I'd have personally thrown into the dungeon long before they had an opportunity to be anything other than rude. And as a reader (listener,) no character I liked ever did anything I didn't like. There just wasn't enough grey in this story to get me onto the edge of my seat, and characters felt stereotypic.
But that's okay. It was a fun story. It was a feel good story. And that has merit too. I fully expect this is not the last we'll hear about the Goblin Emperor. All plot arcs are well positioned to continue further machinations, and there are several I'd like to see spun into tales of their own. I most definitely predict a series, especially now that the book has garnered a Nebula and a Hugo nomination. I don't think Katherine Addison will jump the shark on us either. She's too careful a writer to make that mistake. In fact, you could enjoy this book for nothing more than the court intrigue and political maneuverings. There were several my eyebrow rose with the mental remark, "Wait. What'd he just say? Oh, so-and-so's not going to be happy about that!" It's always fun when a book can evoke that sort of reaction.
But Katherine Addison wasn't the only artist who made this a most enjoyable experience. As I've mentioned previously, I listen to most books these days as I've commute time well suited for it. For this review, I must say the narrator, Kyle McCarley, did an absolutely fantastic job. Every character had not only a distinct voice, but also distinct mannerisms. I did not catch one single error in narration or voice, and I never wondered what the word really was he just said. His enunciation was impeccable. And in a book where everyone has a title that sounds the same, those distinctive and rich voices were about the only way I could keep track of who the various courtiers were. I will definitely be looking for more books narrated by Kyle McCarley in the future.