Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Review: The Goblin Emperor by Kathrine Addison

The Goblin Emperor by Kathrine Addison (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) is looking to be one of the most praised books of 2014 (at least from the bloggers/critics I follow), and I can see why, though part of me thinks this high praise is a much a reaction against the grimdark trend as for the book itself.

It seems to me that a lot of people out there are simply tired of grimdark. Really… the world right now kind of sucks for a lot of people, and for the vast majority of us, life is hard and stressful a lot of the time. So, do we really want to read about worlds that lack and hope and/or redemption? I suppose some people probably find some form of solace in reading about worlds that suck worse than ours, and others consider it a form of ‘realism’ that they can get behind. Me…well, I've not jumped on the grimdark wagon because when I escape to the worlds I’m reading about, I do want some hope, I want redemption, I want positive, progressive change. I want to leave my world behind.

Yes, this is about me and what I’m looking for. 2014 has turned out to be a particularly hard and stressful year for me, maybe the most stressful ever – even more than the harsh medical struggles of my daughter’s first year of life. That sucked bad – but I had no control over it, I could only go along with hope and prayers. The difference with now is that it’s much of my own doing, I often have direct control over how a thing will play out. That’s a whole new kind of stress for me, and way more pressure than I want to deal with. So, the urge to just walk away and escape it all is stronger than ever.

For me that, I think that’s why The Goblin Emperor worked so well. I got a journey into a world that was both an escape and something I could really relate to. Much of that that stress I mention above is due to me ascending to a position of leadership – one I accepted/volunteered for, but also one that is turning out way different than I had thought/hoped for. It actually sucks most of the time and I don’t have the time and energy that I need to devote to it. But, I’m the one in charge, so I've got to move forward anyway, because it really does all come down to me.

As a result, I could strongly relate to Maia and his ascending to the role of emperor. Now, my own situation is not one of life or death, there’s a big difference in the scope of leadership addressed, and my own situation doesn't come with racial baggage (though perhaps a little bit of the family baggage). But it was still a position I could relate to – feeling completely out of my league, no comfort zone in site, helplessness in reliance on others, those moments of losing every bit of confidence in one’s decision making abilities, and yet an overriding duty to live up to the opportunity and make things better.

Because that’s what it’s all really about, isn't it? Striving to make the world a better place regardless of what gets thrown at you. Whether that world is the small world of your own family, your place of work, or the actual, literal world around us all. It really is a fundamental part of human nature to be optimistic in the face all the contravening information, and to really want to make the world better.

Grimdark refuses to admit that about human nature, and that refusal often does nothing more than highlight just how strong a part of human nature hope really is. It deals with the exception to the rule of hope, and that’s why I don’t think it will last. That’s also why much of what gets called grimdark is anything but (however, that’s another discussion entirely). So, it’s no surprise that a book like The Goblin Emperor is receiving so much praise. And it really is a great big breath of fresh air among the stench of grimdark.

I still have another admission to make – when I was reading The Goblin Emperor, none of this was evident to me, or at least not at the level I’m exploring here. I was just enjoying a good book. A fantasy book that largely lacks violence, and is the better for it. A fantasy book that embraces the idea of hope, change, and progress. A fantasy book that has one of the best, most uplifting endings that I've read in years. But after sitting down to write this review, having no idea that it would end up being what it’s become, I realize that The Goblin Emperor affected me at a much deeper level than I imagined. Only a truly great novel can do that and I now realize that The Goblin Emperor is a truly great novel.

For the record, I've also realized that for some reason I can never spell the word emperor correctly – my hands are incapable of it. Perhaps I should unpack that one in my next post?


Paul Weimer said...

Is Grimdark going to be less of a thing? Maybe. I don't like it as a steady diet, only as "Salt" to my usual fantasy.

Some authors had been writing grimdark long before, um, Lord Grimdark burst upon the scene, and there will be "Grimdark" long hence. But maybe Fantasy is ready for new things.

Neth said...

yes, what gets called grimdark is nothing new, though I think the spotlight is brighter at the moment. I think it's a fad that will be coming to an end now (though with the slow pace of publishing, it'll take a couple of years to fade back into the shadows). Of course I could just be projecting my own wishes.

Ron Buckmire said...

I don't know what it is but I just can not get into The Goblin Emperor (or City of Stairs , another much acclaimed fantasy novel from 2014).

I do feel for Maia in The Goblin Emperor but I just am completely uninterested in all the royal intrigue of the Emperor's Court. I Just Did Not Care. I gave it a couple chances (it is still on my nightstand but my reading time is limited and i want to spend it on things I really enjoy, like Brent Weeks Lightbringer series or Peter Brett's Demon Cycle.

Neth said...


It's a different kind of fantasy, so I'm not surprised that it doesn't work for everybody. There are too many good books to struggle with one that doesn't work for you.

Steven Erikson said...

Thanks, Ken, for your observations on Grimdark. As far as I can tell, this push to nihilism is a natural reflection of some fairly pervasive attitudes here in the Western world: the un-reflective hero who can only spare a few dry quips to the mayhem he (usually 'he') delivers, and is often seen (in film and on television) walking out of a ball of flame with a face lacking all expression. Someone decided, somewhere, that this was the epitome of cool. In all media entertainment these days, we're seeing iterations of that motif, and like you, I'm fed up with it. There may be something of a childish glee in the revelling of the worst in human nature: at least to me, it seems to lack maturity. I know I'm done with reading about sociopathic heroes.


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