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Emperor

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:  Assassin’s Gambit by Amy Raby

REVIEW: Assassin’s Gambit by Amy Raby

Dear Ms. Raby,

In our archives is this review by our own Amy of Assassin’s Gambit by Amy Raby. The BookPushers also have a review and Has has been recommending the book to me for ages. It’s been almost a year since its publication, but I finally picked up Assassin’s Gambit, a fantasy romance set in a late 18th/early 19th century technology level version of the Roman empire. Assassins-Gambit

The assassin of the title is the heroine, Vitala Salonius. Vitala comes from Riorca, a small country subjugated by the Kjallan empire. The Riorcans are under Kjallan rule and many are enslaved in Kjall, so as the book begins, Vitala is on a mission to assassinate Lucien Florian Nigellus, the emperor of Kjall.

The Riorcan resistance organization known as the Obsidian Circle has assigned her this task since Vitala was a young girl, and prepared her for killing Lucien before it was known he would be the one of the emperor’s sons to take the throne.

The Circle believes that killing Lucien will trigger a battle for power between contenders with little claim to the succession, and this will throw Kjall into disarray, enabling Riorca to overthrow Kjallan rule.

To this end, twenty year old Vitala, Kjallan-looking and the product of a Kjallan military man’s rape of her Riorcan mother, has been trained not only in seducing men, breaking the magical wards that protect them while they are distracted by orgasm, and executing them, but also in catarunga, a strategy game Lucien loves.

Twenty-two years old and missing a leg due to an earlier assassination attempt, Lucien is a brilliant leader on the battlefield. He’s also an enthusiastic catarunga player, and every year he invites the winner of the Kjallan catarunga championship to his palace and challenges that person to a game.

Vitala is the current champion, and the first of Lucien’s invitees to best him. They play a few games and she issues a subtle invitation to her bed, where she intends to carry out the assassination despite an attraction to Lucien, almost a liking for him, and an appreciation for his clever mind.

Just then Lucien must travel with troops to confront bandits plaguing a Kjallan city, but he invites Vitala along. While they are having sex in his tent, two things happen. First, Vitala experiences a post-traumatic stress flashback to her first experience of seducing a man to execute him, and second, Lucien is attacked by a group of men in a coup meant to overturn the leadership of Kjall.

The men drag Lucien out and decide to take turns raping Vitala. While alone with the first of them in the tent, Vitala kills that man during his rape of her. She then realizes that the Obsidian Circle’s information is incomplete. Perhaps another Kjallan has a strong claim to the Kjallan throne and killing Lucien will only make the succession easier for that man, not harder.

On impulse, Vitala kills Lucien’s captors, fakes Lucien’s death, and helps an injured Lucien to escape the military encampment, only to force Lucien to head north with her, in the direction of Riorca. Lucien agrees because despite Vitala’s lies, he deduces that she is from the Obsidian Circle and to retake his throne, he needs to ally with them and obtain access their spy network.

There is so much going on in this book and it’s hard to discuss it all,  but I thought one of the most interesting aspects of the book was the dynamic between the characters.

What I loved about it was that though strong-minded and clever, Lucien was neither brawny nor domineering. His disability was real and impacted him physically when he wasn’t atop a horse. His prosthetic leg pained him and didn’t solve all his problems via magic. He also didn’t strike me as being quite as proficient at killing as Vitala, and I think it could be argued that her magical powers were stronger than his as well.

Some of Lucien’s countrymen viewed him as weak because of his disability, or had no respect for him. But none of this prevented him from thinking strategically and commanding well in the field. None of this stopped him from showing a ruthless side to his enemies when he had to, or a softer side with Vitala.

Vitala meanwhile was no fake assassin. Her past was very dark, and she could probably out-kill every character in this novel. This may not be a skill to be proud of, but it runs contrary to the way women are usually portrayed in romance fiction and when combined with Lucien’s characterization, it made for a truly fresh dynamic between the two characters. They really were equal; this wasn’t a case of one constantly besting the other.

In fact, Lucien was more vulnerable to physical harm for a good part of the book, and Vitala served as his bodyguard, protector and rescuer during this portion. Later in the novel, Vitala’s is surrounded by people who distrust her and her psychological trauma comes to the fore. At this point Lucien is able to repay her with care for her feelings.

In her review, Amy says that there wasn’t enough detail given to visualize the world and I agree with that sentiment. I wanted more visuals and also, a deeper sense of the cultural differences. The magical system was fascinating but I would have loved to learn more about how the objects used by the characters were imbued with magic and see this process in action too. There was a lot of swearing “godsdammit” but no real sense of the gods or their mythology.

Amy also talks about the way Vitala waves away her rape. I came to the same conclusion about this—that it fit Vitala’s character. Not only is she trained in putting aside her personal wants to sleep with her marks in order to kill them, but she is also a type of soldier and therefore cannot afford to focus on trauma while in the field.

Her PTSD with regard to her training is something she cannot suppress, and here I really appreciated that her mental illness was not cured. She figured out ways to cope with it, but it didn’t magically disappear.

Vitala insisted throughout the book that her training was her choice, and made no apologies for what she was. But she was only a teenager when she was trained in killing, so there were questions in my mind about how much of this truly was her choice, and how much of her statement that it was her choice indicated that she couldn’t fully perceive how limited her choices had been, as a young person born of rape and of two enemy nations/races.

The difficulties Vitala faced since childhood aren’t ignored. Full-blooded Riorcans are blond while Kjallans have dark hair, so Vitala’s hair color marked her as an enemy to her countrymen and countrywomen. Using hair color instead of skin color to indicate race difference means that skin color doesn’t come up in the novel, though.

This book is not for the faint of heart; a lot of bad things happen. Characters are discriminated against. Characters are raped, killed or do horrible things. The flashbacks to Vitala’s childhood reminded me of some of Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling books where we see the Psy characters’ childhood training in the hands of people who sought to use them.

Yet despite this, the tone of the book feels almost breezy at times. A fully realistic, gritty, in depth treatment of all the issues that come up here would have made the book at least twice as long and much tougher to read.

There are multiple problematic aspects —the slavery issue isn’t solved nor is it explored that much. The ramifications of rape and of recruiting children to kill are explored more but not fully either. But nor are they treated thoughtlessly, and for the characters to fully reform and entirely change their thinking by the end of the novel would have been too hard to believe.

For a debut this book is strong. It kept me turning the pages and was hard to put down. I thought Vitala began to like Lucien too early in the novel and that he trusted her with sensitive information sooner than was warranted, but a big part of what made this book work for me was the balance of power between the characters, which shifted so many times and in such interesting ways. Between that and the fact that the main character were not the archetypical dominant alpha hero or the archetypical “virtuous” heroine, I’m giving this one a B-.

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