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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:  The Will by Kristen Ashley

REVIEW: The Will by Kristen Ashley

The Will

Dear Ms. Ashley:

I was thrilled to receive an ARC of this book a few months ago particularly after the last few reviews we’ve done haven’t been so glowing. And I was even more happy when I read The Will. As I’ve told other readers, there is everything I love about a Kristen Ashley story in this book and really nothing I didn’t.

First, let’s talk about the flaws because I have to get those out of the way so I can wax rhapsodic about all the great elements of the story. The big draw back is that the heroine is a bit of a Mary Sue. I don’t mind but this might deter some readers.

Josephine Malone is an assistant to a world famous fashion photographer and videographer. Her beloved grandmother dies and she travels back to Magdalene Cove in Maine to wrap up her Gran’s affairs. While she is there, she decides to take a look at her life and re-evaluate her future. At forty-five, childless and unmarried, Josephine isn’t sure what she wants to do next. We learn throughout the book that Josephine is well beloved by nearly everyone. She cooks, charms children, and famous men from rappers to photographers to actors have not only been in her bed but have wanted to keep her there.  But either they haven’t loved her enough or she’s pretty oblivious. I came to the conclusion that it was both. She’s a forty-five year old Disney Princess in many ways but I DO NOT CARE.

Let’s move on.

During the reading of the Will, Josephine is greeted by a man she saw at the funeral–Jake Spear, a father of three kids. Josephine is left everything but for three major gifts to each of Jake’s children and then the kicker. Lydia Malone bequeaths Josie to James Markham Spear. They acknowledge right away that it is not legally binding but Josie is left to contemplate exactly the purpose behind the wording in the contract.

And it’s kind of a mystery, the resolution of which is not given until the very end of the story. Josie has visited Lydia for years and clearly from the bequest and familiarity Jake and his children have with Lydia, the Spears know Lydia quite well. Why then has Josie and Jake never met before Lydia died? The reason was pretty endearing.

Most of this story is about getting to know Josie and Jake through each other’s eyes. Josie is apprehensive of Jake, not because of what he does for a living or that he’s a single father, but because of her intense reaction to him. She’s there to mourn her grandmother’s death and focus on getting her life in order. But an invitation to have dinner with Jake turns into Jake and his family becoming an integral part of Josie’s day to day activities and her one week planned vacation from her jetsetting lifestyle turns into two weeks and then into something more permanent. But it’s not just to the Spears that Josie becomes attached to. In order to find her happy place, the one she had with her Gran, Josie begins to make connections with friends of her Gran’s–the reverend of the church, the local attorney and his wife.

There are extended descriptions of Josie’s clothes and the house and the makeup. Josie is remarkable. Every meal she makes is effortless. She, who had no real interaction with kids before, knows how to tame even the rebellious Ashley. She has just the right thing to say to each child and she knows all the right people to make their lives a fairy tale come true.

But I DO NOT CARE.

Jake is forty-nine and Josie is forty-five. There is no surprise babies in the story and no driving need for them either. They act like adults for the most part.  I haven’t said much about Jake in the review. It’s not that he isn’t an important character or that he is overshadowed in the story but that you view Jake via the lense of Josie. He’s a caring father who has made mistakes. He’s a no bullshitter. He’s demanding yet giving. He had a predilection for saying “Jesus” every five paragraphs. He also fights in amatuer boxing matches at a gym he owns. In many ways he’s just as perfect as Josie only in different ways.

While the physical side of the romance develops slowly, the attraction is always there and it crescendos at precise believable moments. Jake and Josie’s post fight locker room encounter is memorable.  Their sex is super steamy. It might be one of the steamiest Ashley books I’ve read. I just liked jake and Josie. I smiled the entire book, even during some of the more ridiculous and over the top scenes such as when Josie’s dead beat dad enters the scene and tries to steal away her inheritance. Or scenes with one of Jake’s ex wives. (He has more than one)

The story is long and lovely. I remember that the official definition of romance included “satisfactory ending” and the extended epilogue which was baby–but not family–free definitely fulfilled that term. B+

Best regards,

Jane

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