Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Book Review - Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
Published by: Tor Fantasy
Publication Date: April 1st, 2014
Format: Paperback, 502 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Maia never expected to be Emperor. Forth in line for the throne, the half goblin son of the Elvish Emperor Varenechibel IV has spent his life in exile with an abusive cousin. When his father and elder brothers all die in an airship crash Maia is plunged into a world of court intrigue he was never prepared for. Maia has a good heart and has had a lonely life; he finds the transition to court almost unbearable. He doesn't know who to trust and those he does are to be viewed as servants not friends. Then there is his remaining family, people he has never met and who make it clear they are not happy with his rapid and unexpected ascension. The earnest youth has to deal with plots and plans and the startling knowledge that the airship crash that changed his life was sabotage and that his family didn't die because of an unfortunate accident, they were murdered. As Maia tries to find out the truth his own life might very well be in danger. After all, in an elvish realm who wants a goblin as emperor?

I don't lightly contemplate giving up on a book. Once I pick it up I am in it for the long haul. I am there to the bitter end. Like Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory contemplating adding a new television show to his life, no matter what happens or how bad it gets, we are committed and can't back out; it's a facet of our personalities, though I'm not fictional. Therefore when I got about sixty pages into The Goblin Emperor and started seriously thinking of backing out, well, you can get an idea as to how I feel about this book. Seeing as this book was a selection for my book club I stated my feelings on our Facebook page and was strongly encouraged to carry on. I waited about a week and started the book over again. I struggled and I cursed, I occasionally chose sleep over reading, I had panic attacks that I would never finish, and then, I stumbled into the finish line abruptly. Occasionally I glimpsed the greatness that caught my friends imaginations, but overall this book failed to achieve even the most basic needs of a book, legibility.

The Goblin Emperor is full of dense almost impenetrable text. If you can get past these trappings there is a story with a very slight narrative in there, but if you don't look closely you might miss it. Katherine Addison has created the most convoluted language with unpronounceable titles and honorifics possible. At times I thought that she just literally hit keys at random on her keyboard to come up with some of the names of her characters. In her "Handbook for Travelers in the Elflands" she oh so kindly points out that "there are no silent letters in Ethuverazhin." Oh, so all those random consonants and vowels, I say them all? OK, let me just mentally rename all the fifty million characters in the book to something legible to preserve my sanity. And then Addison has some fun with masculine and feminine names and does some slight Scandinavian manipulation so that husbands and wives have different surnames! And all these woman have the same-ish title, which could for a couple hundred pages be mistaken for their forenames, of dach'osmer, or dach'osmerrem, or even dach'osmin! Rarely does a book make me feel stupid. This book made me feel stupid.

I struggled so much that at times I was brought to tears and conversely I was occasionally brought to the edge of panic with my heart racing as it felt like it was climbing into my throat. The only time of the day I found it mildly productive to read this book was when I was half awake. In this almost dream state I just didn't care enough to have my ire raised. But if I was fully conscious; well that's another matter. Here's the thing about creating a world with a different language; it might be helpful if that different language has some basis in, oh, any language on earth. The reason a fantasy writer like Tolkien is embraced is because as a historian of dead languages he was able to create languages that had the same basis as our own. The names and words made sense. Got that? You can't just make up an entire new language with no touchstone to reality. There's a reason language formed as it did over time, we can speak it! We understand it! We don't look at it and go, what they hell is this!?! That is what I spent the majority of this book doing; ripping out my hair and saying what the hell is this!

Addison spent so much time creating this made up etiquette and title system she forgot that worldbuilding is more then just made up words and it's generally a good idea to have a plot. Even if we were to take the theory that this was a character study... well, no one but Maia is more then two-dimensional, some barely make it that far, being just signifiers of emotion. All I kept thinking while reading this book and looking askance at the rave review on the front cover from author Scott Lynch guaranteeing court intrigue was that someone, ie Addison, needs to bone up on their court history or read Patrick Rothfuss's A Wise Man's Fear to see a successfully executed fantasy court. Because really, strip this book down, strip the stupid Ethuverazhin language, strip the emotive ears, strip out every time someone says "Serenity" (that alone should make the book two hundred pages shorter) and what do you have? Literally Queen Victoria's ascension to the throne, which is milquetoast to the Medici's! Seriously, all this book is is a kernel of real history tarted up with all these fantastical and nonsensical trappings and spewed back at us with no depth and no umph. Everything is surface.

I know this review might cause uproar, and it probably will make some of my friends wonder how we are friends with such different tastes in reading material, but I just couldn't like this book. I begrudgingly gave it two stars because Maia does have a good heart and it is rare to have someone kind and thoughtful and not at all malicious or vindictive as a hero, but think how much better this book would be if Addison could write? Because that is my biggest take-away from this book. Addison can't write. She can spew nonsense, she can write impressive lists of horrendously annoying made up names, she can spend hours going on and on about Maia's clothes, but she can't write. I so wanted this book to be good if just to thwart those Sad and Rapid Puppies out there who got this book a Hugo Nomination most likely because of the anti gay societal values, but alas, it isn't so. And as a parting salvo, I want to ask, who the hell thought to categorize this book as Steampunk? Pneumatic tubes and airships do not a Steampunk book make. You might be able to argue that it fits in Baroque Punk... but like my overall opinion of this book, um no.


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