Last night I finished up Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. It was listed as a finalist for the 2015 Locus Awards, so I thought I’d give it a go.
I want to get the criticism out of the way: the plot has very little action, and most of it happens “off camera”, which I think is inherent to the nature of the story being told, but I did find myself wishing that something would happen soon with some regularity.
Then before I dive into what I really liked about the book let me mention the double edged sword. The story happens in a very well crafted fantasy world that is rich, giving the reader the idea that the world has a history and a future that this story is taking place in the middle. Fortunately for me, the author did not choose to write half the book in a completely fictional language or pepper it with words that are impossible to understand even with contextual clues. However, there was a bit of that, and had I known there was a glossary at the back of the book that explained some things right off the bat, I would have had a few less moments of confusion. Example: the world has lots of honorifics, like “Mer” means “Mister”. In, perhaps, a brilliant moment of self awareness the titular character is confused about a character’s title that he isn’t certain what it means. This is a razor’s edge for an author putting a story in a fantasy world, how novel does this world become versus how familiar should it be to not alienate the reader?
Now let’s get on with it. The book was really good. The fantasy genre does lead me to believe that there is going to be some regular swordplay or magic fireballing that’ll happen, but this book had only a little of it. Because of that, it was a nice change of pace, but I felt that it had to be coming and the reader only gets a taste of it and briefly. The book is very well written and incredibly detailed. The comparison I’d like to make is from da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to his Vitruvian Man. The Mona Lisa is a masterpiece. And it’s boring. The Vitruvian Man is monochromatic, lacks much in the way of detail, but it’s very interesting. The Goblin Emperor is closer to the Mona Lisa. It has to be appreciated by careful consideration of the technique and execution.
It’s slightly lighter reading than George R. R. Martin’s Ice and Fire books, but it’s still a pretty dense read. I’d recommend it to anyone who liked Frank Herbert’s Dune is willing to tackle something like that. But, please, read the glossary first.