Review: The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison

When I was a baby blogger, I wrote a really nasty post about Sarah Monette’s book Melusine. Years and years of crawly shame spiders have effaced my memory of the details of the post (which I long ago deleted), but I know I said fuck and annoying quite a bit. Sarah Monette subsequently linked to my post from her blog, with a sad frowny-face emoticon, and I felt — and still feel — terribly guilty and ashamed that my thoughtless pique made an author feel bad. Ever since then I’ve been much more cautious about writing resoundingly negative posts — fun though they are — and I try to reserve my fits of pique for people like Stephen Marche who truly deserve them.

All of which to say, my first instinct upon discovering that Katherine Addison, author of The Goblin Emperor (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository), was the same person as Sarah Monette was to avoid the book. You can’t write a bad review for a book you never read! But really, when Anastasia and Ana and Memory all rave about a fantasy book, it is difficult to make the case that I shouldn’t give it a try. Not to mention Dear Author praising it to the skies, and Kim highlighting the undercurrent of social justice and feminism, and Charlotte comparing it to The King of Attolia. I am not blinded by my prejudices, people. I can give things a second chance.

The son of the emperor and his cast-aside goblin wife, Maia has grown up far from the capital of the Elven Lands, subject to the tyranny and abuse of his guardian Setheris. But one day a messenger comes from the emperor’s court to say that the emperor and his sons have all been killed in an airship accident, and that Maia must now come to the Untheilenenise Court to be crowned as the next emperor. Unsure of himself and wildly underprepared for the job that faces him, Maia must learn to make his way in a hostile court.

Let me just start by saying OMG THE MACHINATIONS. There are so many machinations. On his very first day, for example, he receives a letter from his father’s widow, who signs herself “Ethuverazhid Zhasan”, demanding that he meet with her at a certain time. He politely declines, sets another time for them to meet, and returns the letter to her by way of her messenger.

The boy was lingering nervously on the landing. “Here,” said Maia. “Take this to the zhasanai with our compliments.”


Wide-eyed, the boy took the letter. He had caught the nuance — “zhasanai,” not “zhasan” — and Maia did not doubt the widow empress would be told. She could style herself a ruling empress all she liked, but she was not one. She was zhasanai, an emperor’s widow, and had best remember that she was now dependent upon her unknown stepson’s goodwill….Already I become a tyrant, Maia thought.

There’s a lot of this: the small but crucial distinctions of etiquette, the implications conveyed by the smallest irregularity of phrasing. Some of them Maia is able to understand on his own, but many more must be explained to him by his (all-too-limited) coterie of trusted advisers. Addison’s creativity is bottomless: She forces you to recognize the stakes in everything, and question the motives of everyone, whether they’re sending Maia a goblin-made coronation gift or shouting him down about the clockmakers’ plan for a new bridge.

Apropos of that, has anybody written a book that’s like, A month in the court of [insert historical monarch here]? The Goblin Emperor made me desperately curious for a book that would just methodically go through all the tasks that Edward IV had to do in a day. Who were his meetings with, and what kinds of decisions was he making? Inquiring minds want to know! And I think that’s very much to the credit of The Goblin Emperor and Katherine Addison’s deft hand with the minutiae of being a ruler.

Giles ALWAYS looks like he’s going to say “but”.

BUT, to a non-zero extent:

“You only thought that was a flaw this whole time,” his mentor…told him. “It was actually your secret strength. You don’t have any flaws at all and you’re going to destroy the bad guy so much.”

He totally did.

“Flaws Only a Protagonist Could Have”

If I’d let myself sink into an eye-rolling mindset, I could have done a lot of eye-rolling about how Maia’s always horrifying the court people by apologizing to The Lowly, and sympathizing way too much with the poor and oppressed and women who want to go to universities. That is a flaw in the book (I know the author knows the reader knows that it is nice, and not embarrassing, to apologize to The Lowly where indicated), but I was able to let it go. I embraced the mindset that, yes, Maia’s kind of a Mary-Sue-y hero; but he exists in a book that’s brilliant at court intrigues and machinations, which I would enjoy tremendously if I just accepted that I was reading for the machinations and not for the characters. So I did that.

(I still don’t think I would like Melusine. But I am very willing to read more of the Katherine Addison–brand books, if this is a representative of how machinations-heavy they are going to be.)

21 thoughts on “Review: The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison”

  1. I have read some very positive reviews of The Goblin Emperor, but I especially like the quote you used to make your point about court intricacy. And, yes, I find the “flaw” you mention a not uncommon failing. I would rather struggle a little (not much, but a little) to make a connection than have it endlessly repeated or explained.

    1. Yeah, it’s a good book! If you can get past the blandness of the protagonist, it’s a very very very fun read.

  2. To a book about the routine of court, that would be interesting. There are books that are along those lines in some ways, this sounds like one of them, but even non-fiction doesn’t go into too much detail (I suppose because it’s considered dull?) I don’t think I’ve read a bad review of this yet, but given that thoughts have been detailed it hasn’t mattered (I tend to read a mixture before considering a book). If the flaw doesn’t put you off that’s not so bad.

    1. I’d LOVE nonfiction to go into too much detail. If there’s too much detail I can skim; but if there’s not enough detail I will never know what life at a royal court is like. And I want to! I do, I do.

  3. I think sometimes you have to be in the right mood to enjoy a book. As I’ve been blogging longer, I’ve been thinking more that the thing to do when I’ve read (or more likely, half-read) something I don’t like is to wait for a better time and try reading more or writing about it after the initial irritation with it has worn off. Often I find that it was just me. Sometimes I find that it’s a bad book, and then we have words and that’s just the way it is.

    1. SO agree. That’s why I don’t typically give up on a book just because I haven’t loved it on the first go-round. I keep it in mind that I will give it another try someday. That’s what happened with Shirley Jackson’s novels, and I love her now — she just caught me at the wrong time on my first try.

  4. As you have probably realised, my radar for fantasy books is pretty much non-existent, but this one I had heard about (yay!) from the wondrous Jodie B, who was going to review it for us but it doesn’t have a UK publishing date yet. Boo! I am very glad to know you enjoyed it and it’s really nice that you went back to an author you hadn’t liked and tried her again. I’m sure that earns you huge brownie points from the reading gods.

    1. I hope so! I wonder what I can cash those brownie points in for.

      I admit that I was slightly hoping you would know of a nonfiction book about court life. You are so knowledgeable and erudite! Anything? Any such book?

      1. Well the best I can do is a book by Alison Weir, entitled ‘Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and His Scandalous Duchess’. This is about the court of Edward III, which is a teeny bit earlier than the period you are looking for, but it’s a good book and Weir is a fantastic historian, and if I remember right there are LOTS of machinations. (I very badly want to retain this image of erudition!!)

      2. Hahaha, your reputation for erudition would have been untouched if you hadn’t been able to think of anything! Even the most erudite person in the world is not knowledgeable on every topic whatsoever. Thank you for that recommendation — my respect for you is such that I am going to read it even though Alison Weir and I are PERMANENT ENEMIES and have been since I was twelve.

        1. Yikes! There’s also the Anya Seton version of the story, entitled just ‘Katherine’. That’s supposed to be very good, too, though I haven’t read it. You’ve made up with Katherine Addison, but I wouldn’t want to push you too far out of the comfort zone! 🙂

  5. I remember your baby-blog days and how horrified you were when you realized that the author had read (and been wounded by) your review, a review that you never thought she would see. It’s a good reminder to me, too, because I tend to be a bit blunt when I review books. It’s nice that you liked this one; and it’s nice to be reminded that both authors and bloggers grow.

  6. Sometimes if I read too many too enthusiastic reviews I feel like I enjoy a book less because now I’m expecting it to be SO AWESOME and change my life and do the dishes. Then it’s disappointing if it’s just pretty good.

    1. Oh, definitely me too. I try to catch buzzy books before they get TOO buzzy — and in fact I think I’d have been disappointed in this one (I read SO MANY good reviews of it before trying it out) if I hadn’t been trying really hard to like Sarah Monette after all. Sometimes you just have to wait out the hype cycle.

  7. I often write very blunt reviews, but most of the people I’m reviewing are dead. I’ll be very surprised if they’re still getting their feelings hurt in heaven (and hell is probably ALL getting your feelings hurt, and/or shame about it.)

    I agree about Mallory Ortberg.

  8. Ouch.. I would probably retire my blog and start blogging under another name. Well, that wouldn’t really be possible, but I would wish for that. I have one of those reviews too, in which I called the book awful and other such words. The book WAS awful. But I did feel bad after posting it. Hard not to. It was after all, someone else’s baby.

  9. Gosh, the court life and etiquette details sounds all sorts of awesome, but a bland protagonist? Not sure I can do it.

    And I feel for you when that author linked to your review with a sad face. So mortifying. I need to keep your experience in mind when I write seriously negative reviews.

  10. I am a turkey for taking so long to read this review. A turkey.

    Once, I wrote not quite nasty (but definitely on the snarky side) review of an early novel by a Legend of Science Fiction (capitalization necessary) in the mistaken belief that this Legend of Science Fiction was either dead or too old to use the internet.

    This was not, in fact, the case. The Legend of Science Fiction showed up in my comments, many of which were nasty, and begged the lot of us to remember how old the book was.

    I’ve felt terrible about it ever since.

    More on point: I agree you probably wouldn’t like MELUSINE. You know it’s one of my very favouritest books, but it’s definitely not for everyone.

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