First off, yes I had to reference the King Crimson tune. What kind of nerd would I be if I didn’t know that one? Answer: probably one that wasn’t born in the 70’s.
Penned by Katherine Addison (nom de plume of Sarah Monette), The Goblin Emperor is chock-full of courtly intrigue…like ten pounds of courtly intrigue in a five-pound bag. Fortunately, the bag here happens to be a well-written novel full of fleshed out characters with believable motivations.
If you read any of the first three Frank Herbert Dune novels and liked them/it, you may be into this one. The Goblin Emperor has that strategic flavor to the plot that made Dune so rich and compelling, almost like a good game of chess. The king, the counselor, and different factions in various kingdoms (or, in Dune, planets) all vying for positions of power.
In Dune, Herbert wrote an extensive history of Arrakis, which I found tedious at the beginning. Addison’s version of that is the slew of character names. I’m not even going to try to rehash them here: names, titles, male and female versions of titles. The upside is that Addison couches them in the story well enough that I very rarely had to flip back to figure out which character she was referencing. She uses them so deftly that in no time I got into the groove and was rooting for this and that character. That being said, this might not be the greatest book to listen to as an audiobook. It’s not impossible, but all the strange names and titles may present a challenge if not nailed down on the page.
Addison does fall into the sci-fi/fantasy cliché of elaborately describing the courtly garb, jewelry, and hairstyles of different characters. Again, she writes well enough that it doesn’t get too distracting, but she definitely skirted that line. Perhaps this is just a pet peeve of mine.
The biggest drawback to this novel may be that it’s almost all courtly intrigue. Eighty percent of the book literally takes place in some part of the emperor’s court with messengers running official missives back and forth. It’s interesting enough and well written to the point that I kept going, but if you aren’t into that kind of plot in a novel, you will completely despise this book. The big turning point–well, maybe second big turning point–in the novel where something physically decisive actually happens doesn’t take place until a good 3/4 of the way through.
I also wanted more of a spiritual element to this book,
à la the Bene Gesserit in Dune. Psychic abilities, connection to the larger universe, maybe some Weirding Way space kung-fu. Hey, I’m a sci-fi nerd; this stuff is my bread and butter. There is a skosh of a connection to the spiritual realm in a few scenes, but Addison uses it as more of a spice in the novel. I wanted it as a side dish, more as a strong counterbalance against the rest of the plot.
All in all, a solid bildungsroman (yay, English degree). If Addison writes a sequel, I’d more than likely pick it up. 4 out of 5 stars.