The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
3 stars in my book was a book that I enjoyed reading, but would not want to read again. A more true rating would be 3.5 stars as I would not mind reading it again at some point in the future.
The first half of the story really dragged. Maia, a forgotten and banished son, is elevated to become emperor due to an unfortunate incident that took the life of his father, the emperor, and his older brothers. During the first half, Maia is not only a fish out of water, he is also a leaf upon the breeze.
It is only due to the kindness of strangers in the court that he begins to hold the reins of power. Unsteadily at first, and rarely with any sort of personal direction.
Such a situation is far more likely to result in a government run amok as various functionaries exercise unchecked power. It is far more likely that such a weak ruler would be killed or forced to abdicate. That all of these options are tried within the book does little to relieve the sense that it would have happened sooner and with broader support in any sort of more realistic setting.
So the emphasis is on fantasy in this fantasy tale.
A prime example is Maia's decision to select Csevet at his primary aide/personal secretary upon arriving at the capital. It appears to the reader that it is only blind luck that permits Csevet's selection to result in a solid guide as Maia navigates his new existence.
As with many works of SF/F, The Goblin Emperor contains many messages/passages that one could read as political commentary on the modern world.
Many of those passages and many of the larger themes would have been far more appropriate in the late 19th century and early 20th century than they are in the early 21st century. One such theme is whether women should be educated or if education simply ruins them for their only "fit" purpose of breeding and care of children.
This is largely no longer an issue for the English speaking world. Thankfully. It remains a more significant issue outside of western civilization/culture. The inclusion of this theme does not detract from the book. It is just an odd choice, IMHO.
The larger world is of elves and goblins who can and do intermarry and interbreed with predictable questions about race and identity. However, they refer to themselves as "men". This is an odd combination.
There is apparently some form of magic, but the details are unexplored. Also, the world contains some elements of steampunk which are also largely unexplored in any real depth. Steampunk is not a favorite sub-genre of mine and so I was grateful that it existed in a state where the details did not overly intrude on the larger story.
The first half of the book focuses on a number of secondary issues such as jewelry, attire, and dancing. While these are good ways of illustrating Maia's lack of preparation to become emperor, they are not terribly interesting for any other purpose.
[warning - semi-political rant ahead]
Another minor theme that is explored is the nature of "power". Within the context of the book, those in power are in some way affiliated with the structure of royalty. Apparently, "fortunes" may rise and fall. The relationship between this rising/falling relative to society, wealth, and the government are at best tangentially explained.
While there seems to be some sort of system of trade and while factories are present, the market is not presented as being free. Nor is it presented as "un-free".
Within those constraints, there is an exploration of a form of proto-socialism within the context of a letter to the emperor. One of the points made in that letter is that the most ardent advocates for this proto-socialism are really more concerned with seizing power from the powerful and have very little concern for the average citizen/worker. Rhetoric aside, they are more Stalinesque/Hitleresque/Mao-esque in their desire to impose their vision of "equality" and have little interest in actually improving conditions for anyone other than themselves. The lives of any who dissent are apparently regarded as disposable.
As a small "l" libertarian, my preferences run towards free market capitalism where the markets are regulated to prevent abuse of investors and workers. No sane person...to true Irishman....should want to see children laboring....and dying...in coal mines. Nor should one accept other labors that cost workers the valuable use of their limbs, senses, and rational thought.
And so the razor's edge we walk is how to balance the need regulate those abuses with the inherent progress that accompanies a free market.
The book offers some thoughts on those issues, but leaves further consideration as an exercise for the reader.
[end semi-political rant]
This is a free-standing book. It is not part of a series. For that we are mostly humbly grateful to the author. Dann's Dictum for authors remains in force.
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The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
My reading lately has slowly helped to develop the opinion that there are far too many book series being published. Authors will develop a fictional world and a cast of characters. They will then use those developments to create a series of stories.
This makes sense from an author's perspective. World building takes time. Character creation takes time. Re-using the product of those efforts means less work needed to produce each book. This process also enables an author to tell longer story arcs.
This also makes sense from a publisher perspective. One successful book in a series is usually sufficient to ensure reasonable sales of other books in the series regardless of the quality (or lack thereof) in each individual book.
This preference for serialization only places the reader at a disadvantage. Picking up book 4 of 6 (or 12, or....) means that the reader will not possess the knowledge of events in the preceding books. This forces the reader to go back to the beginning of a series whenever a later book is recommended or otherwise achieves some measure of notoriety.
If every book in the series is a superior piece of artisan effort, then the only real harm is the time spent with a series of enjoyable books. However, the more books in the series fail to favorably compare with the rest of the series, the more the reader's time and money is wasted just to remain current with the series.
This leads to Dann's Dictum for Authors.
Write one good book. And then move on.
Do not offer a series unless you have the capacity to have every installment achieve the same high level of reader satisfaction.
This Dictum does not preclude telling multiple stories in one fictional universe. Dragonlance was home to a great many good stories and several good series. However they were usually crafted so that one need not be overly familiar with other books/series from that fictional world. The Star Wars universe would be another decent example.
Authors, I entreat. I beg. I appear. I conjure. I implore. I plead. I supplicate.
Please write the best book you can. And then move on. Do not undertake a series unless every installment can be superlative. Just as a short fiction author who lacks the ability to write books should avoid doing so, an accomplished book-length author that lacks the ability to craft a series should avoid that monumental task as well.