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REVIEW:  The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

REVIEW: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Dear Ms. Addison,

After a disappointing reading year in 2013, the past four or so months have comprised one of the best reading streaks I’ve had in a long time. And now comes your fantasy novel, The Goblin Emperor, another stellar book.

goblin-emperor-2The novel is set in a fantastical industrial age empire known as the Ethuveraz, Elflands ruled by a long line of emperors. There are no humans, only elves and goblins in the novel, and they are not at all Tolkienesque.

These goblins and elves aren’t different species, merely different races. They can marry and have children who are able to have children of their own.

Still, the elves and goblins have different cultures, as well as different skin tones and sometimes subtle differences in facial features, and unfortunately there is racism and distrust aimed at the goblins.

But as the novel begins, the emperor of the Ethuveraz, Varenechibel IV, and his three eldest sons have just been killed in an airship crash, leaving the fourth and youngest son of the emperor to rule.

Maia Drazhar, that fourth son, is not only just eighteen years old, but also half goblin, the product of Varenechibel’s unhappy marriage to the daughter of the Great Avar, a goblin leader in Ethuveraz’s neighboring goblin empire of Barizhan.

Since Varenechibel IV had three older heirs, no one ever expected Maia to rule. And since Varenechibel hated Maia’s gentle mother and exiled her and Maia from the moment it was clear she was pregnant, and after her death exiled Maia again with only a distant cousin as his guardian, no one ever prepared Maia for the role of emperor.

Maia is as shocked as anyone to learn the news brought by the messenger sent to the marshland estate he has been confined to. He has never dreamed of becoming emperor nor wanted to rule the Ethuveraz, and can only imagine how his father’s court will react to a half goblin emperor whom Varenechibel IV, much beloved by the courtiers, despised.

Maia’s guardian, Setheris Nelar, sent away from the court by Varenechibel for reasons unknown to Maia, has been abusive (usually emotionally and until Maia was fourteen, sometimes physically) to Maia during his decade of guardianship, so although Maia is kind and good, he cannot see his own goodness.

Despite Setheris’s past cruelty, Maia finds himself grateful that Setheris taught him good elvish manners, as well as appreciative of his advice. The message sent to Maia by his father’s Lord Chancellor, Chavar, is designed to put off Maia’s return to court, but Setheris, an enemy of Chavar’s, tells Maia that if he isn’t immediately crowned, Chavar will find a way to gain control of the court.

The crown is the last thing Maia wants, but history tells him that if he doesn’t find a way to consolidate power quickly, he may not survive at all. Because he wants to live, Maia determines to follow Setheris’s advice and take the same airship that brought the messenger to him back to the Untheilenenise Court, the elves’ seat of power.

But Maia arrives there to a cool reception. Although the coronation is, at Maia’s necessary order, scheduled to precede his father and brothers’ funeral, few elves welcome the thought of Maia as their emperor. Nor does Maia’s lack of grief for the father and brothers he never knew aid his cause.

Maia is determined not only to evade Chavar’s attempts to manage him, but also not to live under Setheris’ thumb any longer. To that end, Maia chooses Csevet, the messenger who brought him the news, to act as his secretary, and, in a huge stroke of luck I found a bit unlikely, Csevet turns out to be an excellent choice.

Maia is also quickly assigned a bodyguard as well as a spiritual guard, each of which has a replacement so they can take shifts. One of each accompanies Maia at all times. Maia likes them, but he misses having privacy, and feels uncomfortable at the thought of resuming his goblin meditation practice in their presence.

The work facing Maia is enormous. Corruption and potential treachery endanger his rule, and he must learn the workings of his government and the work of governance. Maia develops his knowledge and his skills in these arenas to the best of his ability, but he must also deal with disputes, petitions, hostile relatives, and the necessity of quickly arranging his sister’s marriage—and worse, his own.

As a half-goblin deprived of opportunities to learn, Maia is sensitive to the inequities and prejudices in his society, not just toward goblins and the working classes, but also toward women. It is important to him to ameliorate the status quo, but here too he faces opposition from those whose self-interests lie elsewhere.

Having internalized Setheris’s verbal abuse, Maia is hindered as well by his tendency to self-deprecate and harshly castigate himself for his mistakes, and by his feelings of utter loneliness in his position at the top.

And all this comes before he chooses, for political reasons, a fiancée he later learns does not want to marry him– and before he learns that the airship crash that killed his father and his brothers was caused by deliberate sabotage.

The greatest pleasure of reading The Goblin Emperor is seeing Maia’s growth. He learns to forge connections, grows into not just a good emperor but perhaps an outstanding one, and begins to appreciate and be compassionate to himself.

Early on in the novel, Maia is kind and good to everyone but himself. He is initially so harsh on himself and that wasn’t easy for me to read, especially since he also dislikes the gray color of his skin, which proclaims his goblin blood.

But as he comes into his own, Maia learns to value his skills, and his self-deprecation turns into the beginnings of self-confidence. Maia is such a lovely character that experiencing this transformation and his growth into a good leader is like seeing a butterfly emerge from a cocoon.

Another pleasure is the worldbuilding, which is detailed and multidimensional. The world has a somewhat Asian feel; for example Maia’s residence is located in a minareted tower, and his food is flavored with pickled ginger. But the world does not, as far as I can tell, correspond to any specific place and time in our own world’s history.

The Ethuverz has a complex government and social structure, with different governing bodies depending on branch and geographical jurisdictions, a religion with different types of clergy, levels to the military and policing groups, a language and grammar which include different titles used to designate class and gender, and all of that gives depth and intricacy to the society.

The complexity is at times overwhelming, but this serves the novel because Maia has to deal with it all and he begins knowing very little and feeling overwhelmed. At first the vastness of his empire dwarfs him, and that is part of what makes his ultimate transformation into a good emperor so satisfying.

Just as varied and interesting are Maia’s relationships; he has to learn to navigate deep social waters, but some wonderful connections are eventually made. I don’t want to spoil who turns out to be a friend and who a foe, since there are twists to that. But I found the way things turned out delightful.

Most of the book takes place in the Untheileneise Court and the claustrophobic sensation this caused me was uncomfortable at first, but it also helped me understand just how isolated from his people an emperor can be, and how crucial the contacts he forms can become, both to his nation and to his morale.

Before arriving in the capital, Maia had no love life to speak of. At about the same time he becomes engaged to a noblewoman who treats him coldly, he is also drawn to a beautiful opera singer. I don’t want to reveal how this develops, either, but I will say that at the end of the book, all the signs point to a happy ending.

But the romantic element is only a small subplot in the book. I wanted more romance, but I was still deeply satisfied because that romantic subplot was well-executed, and because this book was not a romance but a coming of age—and coming into power—story.

There are a few minor flaws I want to mention. First, even at the beginning, Maia seems far more mature than his eighteen years, more like a man in his early to mid twenties. A fourteen year old secondary character is also more mature than his age would indicate.

Second, the character names were unfamiliar to me and sometimes similar to each other. Since there are many characters in the novel, this was confusing, although a glossary in the back of the book helps.

Third, nearly half the book takes place over the first few days of Maia’s reign, while the second half takes place over the course of months. Although I wasn’t bored at any point, I was glad when the pacing sped up.

If a reader is looking for intense action, sorcery or swordfights, he or she should look elsewhere. If, on the other hand, a reader can enjoy a thoughtfully paced novel about ascendancy and leading a country into progress, about finding friendship and loyalty in unlikely places, about protecting and caring for loved ones as well as for a nation, and about learning to accept oneself, he or she need look no further than The Goblin Emperor.

Maia was such a lovely person and though half elf, half goblin, and emperor too, he seemed so real and human to me, and always interesting despite his essential goodness. I highly recommend this satisfying novel. A-.

Sincerely,

Janine

PS to readers: Katherine Addison is the new pen name of fantasy author Sarah Monette. I’ve heard from a few different sources that The Goblin Emperor is different from and not as dark as the books she wrote as Sarah Monette.

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REVIEW:  Villette by Charlotte Bronte

REVIEW: Villette by Charlotte Bronte

villetteI have been slowly making my way through the Bronte sisters’ oeuvre, having read Jane Eyre twice (in high school and college) and then tackling the frankly batshit Wuthering Heights a few years ago. Since then, I’ve read Anne’s two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and now have returned to Charlotte with Villette.

The opening few chapters of Villette were a little confusing to me, because our narrator, Lucy Snowe, barely speaks about herself or her thoughts and instead focuses entirely on the family she’s staying with and the other young visitor that comes shortly after she arrives. It’s almost like she’s an omniscient narrator; the effect is odd.

Lucy is staying with her godmother Mrs. Bretton and Mrs. Bretton’s son Graham. Lucy seems to be an adolescent (Wikipedia says she’s 14), but since she never talks about herself it’s hard to be sure. Graham is maybe 18 or so? Again, I’m not sure; if his age was pinpointed, I missed it. Polly is a young child (maybe 5 or 6?) who is brought to stay with Mrs. Bretton by her father, and at first, in her passionate devotion to her father, is distraught to be left there. (Why Mrs. Bretton’s home serves as a way station for homeless children, I’m not sure; I think it’s just a 19th century English thing.) Polly soon develops a strong attachment to Graham, who treats her devotion with a sort of careless affection.

Polly is a precocious, willful child and Lucy tries to help her deal with her fluctuating emotions: grief when her father leaves and then again when he returns and she’s parted from Graham. Again, it’s hard to know what Lucy is even thinking during this time; her focus is so entirely on the characters around her rather than her own thoughts or actions.

So it’s a bit strange when the action switches and Lucy becomes a more active participant in her story. For unspecified reasons she has to leave Mrs. Bretton’s (it was never clear to me where Lucy’s family was but it seemed they were all dead). She is hired as a companion to an older woman, Miss Marchmont, and passes the rest of her youth there, in quiet but fairly contented fashion.

Alas, Miss Marchmont dies, leaving Lucy again without employment. In an uncharacteristically impulsive move, she leaves England altogether and travels to Labassecour, a fictional country based on Belgium. On the ship over, she meets the spoiled and vain Ginerva Fanshawe, who later turns out to be a pupil at the school in the town of Villette where Lucy finds employment. She is first employed as a nanny to the children of Mme. Beck, the school’s proprietress. Later she is elevated to the position of English teacher at the school.

The rest of Villette takes place here, and eventually the connection to the opening chapters with the Brettons and Polly is revealed.

The characters are what make Villette, in my opinion. There is Mme. Beck, who is controlling and possessive (she frequently rifles through her employees’ possessions, searching for dirt on them), but never entirely a villain, even when her actions are somewhat villainous. Dr. John is an English physician who visits the school to treat Mme. Beck’s children and the boarders, and falls into a shallow love with the flighty, capricious Ginverva. He draws Lucy’s interest for reasons that weren’t entirely clear; I was never sure if she were really romantically drawn to him or interested in him for another reason (one that is a spoiler and only becomes clear later in the book).

Ginerva herself is a familiar but entertaining character. She’s a staple of 19th century English literature – the beautiful coquette who is appallingly self-centered and heedless in her treatment of others. Such characters never quite ring true to me – they are so over the top in their callousness and ego. But they can be amusing nonetheless, and Ginerva amused me (and Lucy, I think, to some degree). We also come to know and slowly appreciate the severe professor, M. Paul Emanuel, first an antagonist and later a friend to Lucy.

Lucy herself is an interesting but also a frustrating character. So self-contained in the early pages of the novel that in her narration she is sometimes referred to in the third person, she opens up somewhat after arriving in Villette. She reveals a character that I think of as very Bronte-ish – sensible and plain-spoken, with an unbreakable core of strength and moral rectitude.

Still, it isn’t until the middle of the novel that some of Lucy’s hidden depths and innermost thoughts are revealed. One summer she driven almost mad by loneliness; the school is closed for summer break and Lucy has no one to talk to except, occasionally, the porter and a mentally handicapped child left to languish there. Lucy takes long walks to try to stem her restlessness; one day she ventures far out into the country and comes upon a Catholic church. Desperate for someone to talk to, she tries to unburden her mind upon the priest there, but he tells her to come back the next day. She resolves not to, wary of being taken in by his wily Popish ways. On the way back she is caught in a storm and finds refuge in a house that happens to belong to old friends.

After this, Lucy’s life opens up somewhat as she renews relationships and begins to come out of her shell. But there are those who have reason for wanting Lucy to maintain her current station, and some (pretty obvious) machinations attempted to accomplish that.

There is a fairly benign strain of anti-Continental prejudice in Villette – the French and other Europeans are portrayed as too sensual, lazy and overly emotional, in contrast to the sober and abstemious English. This seems to be the norm for 19th century novels that I’ve read, and I couldn’t take it too seriously. Less benign is the anti-Catholicism, which has been the subject of some criticism since Villette was published. Again, I placed it in the context of where and when the novel was written, but the “Protestants rule, Catholics drool” theme may offend some. Bronte doesn’t quite accuse Catholics of eating babies, but her view of them is fairly harsh. On the other hand, Lucy does not ultimately let that view interfere with her friendship with Professor Emanuel, even when he advocates for his religion over hers.

If I had to rank the Bronte novels, I’d probably do so thusly:

1) Jane Eyre
2) Villette
3) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
4) Wuthering Heights
5) Agnes Grey

I still have The Professor and Shirley left to read. Jane Eyre has to be first because it’s so iconic and Jane is such a wonderful heroine. I would say Villette and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are pretty much neck and neck, though they are very different stories (they do contain some similar themes, though, having to do with female independence). In some ways Villette is more enjoyable, because TToWH is such a serious book, but neither is a light read. Wuthering Heights could really go anywhere on the list because it such a crazy book; I kind of loved it and hated it all at once. Agnes Grey, compared to the other works I’ve read, is a bit pallid, and I still haven’t quite gotten over what a goody-two-shoes Agnes was.

One note on the ending to Villette: it’s ambiguous, leaning towards unhappy. I don’t think I have a really strong prejudice towards unhappy endings if they fit (and after all, Villette is not a romance, where an HEA is more or less promised). But this ending seemed unnecessary and not quite right. It didn’t mar the book for me, but I kind of wish it had ended differently.

My grade for Villette is an A-.

Best regards,

Jennie

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