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Plot summary: When an airship disaster that looks a lot like sabotage kills the Emperor of the Elflands and his three older sons, the crown unexpectedly lands on the head of Maia, the exiled, despised, half-goblin youngest son. Starting with no friends or allies, Maia must learn to negotiate the political and social complexities of his new role, as well as his self-appointed task to solve the mystery of his father’s death.

This is a book full of lovely, rich worldbuilding -- the sort where you get flung into the midst of things, seeing from the point of view of a character who is just as bewildered by much of it as the reader is. (A very handy expository device.) The main character is an extremely likeable, sympathetic figure (and is given sufficient backstory that this is plausible, despite his harsh circumstances). While he makes mistakes along the way, he always makes them in the direction of trying to do what he believes to be the right thing, and his efforts gradually accumulate him a loyal following, even as he sometimes outrages and bewilders them. If I had a quibble, I’d say that Maia is, perhaps, implausibly lucky in happening upon supporters whose principles and personal honor overcome their knee-jerk prejudices and self-interest. It wasn’t enough of a problem to damage my suspension of disbelief, but it did seem sometimes to make attaining his goals easier than they should have been.

Overall, the story leans more towards exposition than action, though the two main threads (the “who done it” and the successful navigation of the social/political hazards) provide enough to carry the reader through. Readers who have issues with being handed lots of strange names and unfamiliar vocabulary, or who prefer to have their fictional worlds spelled out in greater clarity, may not enjoy this book as much as I did. (I strongly advise vocalizing the names and vocabulary -- it makes following along easier and more enjoyable.) The political and social animosity between the Elves and Goblins is a not-at-all-veiled racism allegory, but the societies have been created with enough of a power balance that it doesn’t map strongly to the racial dynamics of our own culture, and so works as realistic world-building rather than feeling like a lazy fall-back.

I strongly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys classic secondary world fantasy, and especially those who are bored with (or never liked) the “grim” approach that seems to be the flavor of the decade currently.

Now for the meta-review about reading around the buzz. Given the people I hand out with online and the sorts of reviewers and review sites I follow, I saw a lot of praise and excitement for how well The Goblin Emperor handled gender issues and how positive a book it was with regard to female characters. Well, ok, I can see how people would say that -- especially in contrast to how gender/women get handled in the vast run of “blokes with cloaks” fantasy literature today. But although Maia takes a very enlightened attitude towards gender roles (due to the influence of his much-beloved mother), especially when compared with the rigidly sexist society he is entering, it is an inescapable observation that the story itself is primarily about men and the male social sphere. Certain female characters are key to the plot, but due to the largely gender-segregated society that the author has created -- exaggerated by the additional separation Maia undergoes due to his new status -- he spends most of his time surrounded by men and interacting with men. The occasional presence of a female character tends to be in a highly marked context regarding things like marriage negotiations. We get a couple of glimpses of female characters who are doing fascinating things, but they are background setting (in one case, a passing reference in a conversation). So, as someone who longs for rich, solid female characters to identify with, I was left feeling a little cheated by the buzz. Yes, it’s wonderful that the protagonist thinks women’s lives shouldn’t be as constrained as they are by his culture -- but I want to read about unconstrained women. It’s kind of like the difference between listening to a man standing on a soapbox saying, “Women should be allowed to eat banquets, just like men!” and actually sitting at the table in the banqueting hall. Good on you, Maia -- I’m glad you feel that way. Now can I please have an entire novel about your Aunt Shaleän instead?


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 10th, 2014 01:49 am (UTC)
I'm hoping we will get a book about his sister.

For me, part of what I appreciate in this book was not about gender roles, but about something that tends to *be* gendered - imposter syndrome and interpersonal patterns.
Aug. 10th, 2014 03:08 pm (UTC)
The sister was one of the other characters I wouldn't mind seeing more of, though I don't know whether she's had a chance at enough adventures to sustain a story yet. I'd almost want an entire novel about his fiancee except I'd only be mad that she's ending up marrying a guy.

Edited at 2014-08-10 07:39 pm (UTC)
Aug. 10th, 2014 03:27 pm (UTC)
Huh. I went into Goblin Emperor expecting it to focus on the emotions of male characters, because that's a feature of the Labyrinth series that Addison wrote as Sarah Monette.
Aug. 10th, 2014 07:38 pm (UTC)
Which is why if feels a little odd that there's all this buzz for it as good for regarding female themes. I mean, is this really where we still are: that all a book has to do is not kick women in the teeth to be touted as a female-positive story? Don't get me wrong, it's a very good book and a very enjoyable story. But I want books that good and that enjoyable that center the female characters and give them their own stories.
Aug. 10th, 2014 10:20 pm (UTC)
I read some very interesting commentary on the feminine gaze & "feminine" themes in Goblin Emperor.

The Labyrinth books had feminine gaze in spades, but it was slash fandom feminine gaze, which tends to bypass female characters and focus on what the hot men are feeling. I wonder if you are picking up on a subtler-but-similar attitude in Goblin Emperor? (I'm a sucker for characters who maintain noble ideals in hopeless situations, but not at all impressed by beautiful men who act like jerks due to their inner pain, so for me the Labyrinth series flipped back and forth between compelling and frustrating depending on the viewpoint character at hand.)
Aug. 11th, 2014 12:25 am (UTC)
Part of what's going on (I suspect) is that I regularly get these hard reminders that relatively few of the people whose book-recs I'm reading are lesbians -- although a good number of them are somewhere on the bi scale. So they may read a book and find it chock-full of fun-gazey stuff and female-positive stuff and all the feels (as the kids call it these days) when the same book pretty much dodges around all the features that would do the same thing for me.

It's sort of like: everyone goes on about how wonderfully queer-positive Torchwood is, but I look at it and can only think, "Ok, I can see how if you're a female slash fan you'd be in heaven. But don't try to convince me that I'm anywhere in the target audience here."

It makes me feel sad and left out. Especially when people try to convince me that I shouldn't have that reaction.
Aug. 11th, 2014 02:24 am (UTC)
Yeah. I hear you.

Conversely, I identify as mostly-straight, but lesbian fiction has been really important to me, because it leaves space for variation in gender roles in a way that fiction about straight women often doesn't.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )