Editor’s note: The Goblin Emperor has been receiving a lot of attention lately because of its inclusion on the Hugo ballot. It seems to be one of those books that polarizes readers—the elements that some love are the specific elements that others find annoying. In order to honor these divisions, this version of 3 Rs will show both sides through two reviews written especially for WWEnd.
Noclichehere’s review is generally positive while illegible _scribble’s is more lukewarm. This blog begins with illegible_scribble’s review in full and offers a closing counterpoint from Noclichehere.
An enjoyable book, but…
I hadn’t gotten around to reading this yet, partly because, based on the synopsis, I wasn’t sure it would be my cup of tea. But I’ve seen so many people rave about this book on Facebook and blogs, and it managed to make it onto the Hugo ballot as a legitimate entry. So I moved it up on my to-be-read list.
This story is a mix of steampunk, murder-mystery, character-study, and royal-court-political-intrigue. It features a half-breed prince who has been scorned and locked away since childhood, but who suddenly ascends to the throne when his emperor father and three favored half-brother princes all die mysteriously in an airship accident.
I found the story interesting – even engrossing. But I fall short of raving about it. Although he’s appealing, the main character feels to me rather one-dimensional. He’s a good person who consistently behaves with honor and forbearance, who wins unlikely friends out of many of his enemies and, despite having had a pretty horrible life, almost never has bad urges – and gives into those urges even less often.
Part of the reason for my sense of lack of dimension may be due to the fact that the story starts as the prince ascends to the throne. We are told a little bit, here and there, about the bullying and abuse previously suffered by him prior to this – but we don’t experience it along with him. We aren’t given much background about how his character evolved.
With regard to the worldbuilding, I’m mystified as to the reason for having the two main races be goblins and elves. It bears no relevance to the story. These aren’t goblins and elves from fairy stories. They could just have easily been linbogs and veles, or sariths and calires. It seems like rather lazy worldbuilding to me, to have used goblins and elves.
The mystery is interesting, but the solution is not that unpredictable or mysterious. The court intrigue is engaging, but not that gripping or revelatory. When I got done reading, I felt as though I had eaten a meal, which was quite tasty at the time, but afterward left me feeling still a bit hungry and unsatisfied.
I’m glad I read it, and I enjoyed it – but I would probably not have put it on my Hugo nominee list.
Other readers’ mileage may – and obviously does – vary. I’ve seen review reactions ranging from “OMG, this is fantastic!” all the way to “I couldn’t finish this, it was just too tedious.” I’ve also seen comments from a couple of people who say that, having been bullied and abused as children, they found especially heartening the main character’s basic decency, and the fact that he survives such a background and comes into his own as a wise, beneficent ruler despite it.
I do sincerely recommend giving this novel a try – but not feeling bad, if it turns out to not be your “thing”.
As an aside, I’ve seen several people express difficulty remembering and understanding all the people and place names. There is a Name Glossary at the back of the book (at least in the printed version), which many people will likely find helpful.
Counterpoint from Noclichehere:
The Goblin Emperor is a wondrously-told, rags-to-riches story set in a vividly interesting, steampunk-ish, fantasy world. The mystery aspect to the story is very subtle to start, taking a back seat to all the other goings-on, and indeed much isn’t revealed to the reader until they’ve read more than halfway through the novel. But even with that fact aside, the pace of the story is by no means boring.
There are countless other things that demand the emperor’s attention while the investigation is being conducted, and the reader will not at all be bored in the meantime as they watch Maia grow and learn about the subtle social conventions of nobility; understand the relationships between feuding families; explore the baffling expanse of the city-sized palace; and much more. Maia is a genuinely kindhearted young man among a sea of cut-throat, two-faced officials looking to gain his favor for their own selfish reasons. His sudden promotion to emperor did nothing to smite his humble nature from living modestly all his life. Because of this he is unusually gracious and kind for an emperor who more often times offends and confounds his courtiers than it does make them like him […].
Overall, I really loved this novel and I would recommend it to anyone who’s infatuated with the idea of courts and kingdoms; lords and ladies; nobility and royalty; elves and goblins; magic and fantasy; and last, but surely not least, mystery and romance.
Review by WWEnder:
This has been on my ‘to-read’ list for what seems like years. The novel’s reputation does precede it somewhat as I’m aware of it’s consideration of being a feminist classic.
My overwhelming impression after reading the novel is that it’s a good novel in terms of plot and story – I found it was one of the novels I couldn’t put down once I started reading it. That said, I didn’t find it a ‘great novel’. The plot is fairly linear and the characterisation limited although that’s necessary for the book – it’s not a story that will stay with me forever.
That said it is a very powerful book and I think this is why it is a necessary read for pretty much everyone! Atwood wrote this in the mid-80’s against a landscape of increased Christian Right influences in US culture. What is truly frightening is that whilst the current US does not resemble Atwood’s Gilead we do see Religious groups informing policy in much of the West and certainly in the US. Likewise, the reproductive rights of women is still a ‘debate’ in some areas of the West. We can see shades of Atwood’s Gilead today in the West. We can see it’s stark realisation in many other parts of the world.
Many areas of the world oppress women to this day. Is Gilead any different from Taliban controlled Afghanistan and Pakistan. Do ISIS resemble Gilead? In much of the Islamic world from Saudi Arabia to Iran (whether they are a ‘friend’ of the West or not) women have no political rights, must cover their faces, are owned by fathers and men and their sexual identity repressed. Is female genital mutilation or the kidnap of girls in Nigeria that different from Gilead?
It’s not confined to the Islamic world either. Consider the sex trafficking of girls and women from Eastern Europe to the West, the sexual exploitation of girls and women in South East Asia, restriction to birth control in Ireland. In the West we quite often look at feminism through the lens of work and bemoan that women struggle to break the glass ceiling to positions of power. This is a classist position and considers the rights of well educated and privileged women above the millions of working class women. Gender politics often look at the experience of women from a middle class perspective. This ignores that working class women are oppressed significantly across the world – yes they can work (in low paid part time jobs), but they are still doing the cleaning, looking after the kids and getting tea on the table.
Gilead is a dystopian future but I do not think in the 20 years or so since this novel has been written that the lives of women across the world have improved very much, indeed it could be argued that things are worse.
I found the naming of the Handmaids particularly troubling (Offred meaning ‘of Fred’s’). This did make me consider though we still have similar conventions (my wife took my surname when we were married). I guess it is the use of the first name that personalises this ownership so much. Furthermore, that we never knew Offred’s real name. I so wanted to discover it. I wanted her to have a name and an identity.
The dehumanisation and categorisation of women was powerful. One can see a limited male perspective of women – a Martha for the cleaning, a Handmaid for the breeding and a Jezebel for the entertainment. How often do men roll these characterisations into one and call it Wife?
It’s a novel of immense power and the use of power. Offred describes power relationships in the book but realistically she does not have any. It’s an indictment of societies mores and rules which everyone has to follow (except those in power). That the Commanders who wrote the rulebook are the ones that ignore it is a particularly strong message.
Well worth reading.
One of the features that I’ve been missing on WWEnd’s blog has been the featured reviews. The amazing growth of the site with the RYO challenges and all the new awards and features has made it impossible for the administrative team to keep up with the amount of reviews that the site is now generating. I have volunteered to be a “review editor” of sorts.
What I want to do is put some of Worlds Without End’s exclusive reviews center stage on the blog. Many of you have your own review blogs and generate your own readers through various means. I want to feature those of us who are only posting our reviews here on WWEnd. (I’m not just doing this to get an audience. I have very mixed feelings about adding mine at all.) What I hope this does is bring some readership and conversation to these reviews that can be quickly pushed off the rolling list on the home page as more reviews are added.
As I said, I am only me, so if you read a good review that you’d like to see on the blog, send me a message through the message system on the forum page. Also, if you want to self-promote your own WWEnd-only review, drop me a note as well. I have created a forum page as well for more conversations and general questions. This is the link. I will put up the first review tomorrow.