Hugo Nominees 2015: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

17910048 I tried to like The Goblin Emperor. I really did. The book has been on my to-read list for almost a year, ever since I first heard the concept. But after two weeks of forcing myself to read it, I'm admitting defeat.

100 pages into The Goblin Emperor, and I find myself completely unable to connect with or care about any of the characters or plotlines. I wouldn't describe it as "boring" so much as "unengaging." It doesn't provide any of the things I need to connect with a novel.

The concept is appealing enough. Our protagonist, Maia, is the half-goblin youngest son of the elven emperor, growing up in exile far from court. But when his father and all of his older sons are killed in an airship accident, Maia must travel to this unfamiliar court and take the throne for himself.

But The Goblin Emperor isn't about Maia, at least not in its first 100 pages. It's not about his struggles and triumphs. It's about the politics of the world that Addison has created, and all the difficulties and ambiguities therein. And if a novel that works as a showcase for fantasy etiquette and court wrangling sounds like fun, this might be perfect for you. But it didn't work at all for me.

The world building in The Goblin Emperor is demonstrably extensive. Every detail has been mapped out, including the nuances of naming conventions and its own rules for English grammar. But many basic details necessary to understand this world are left unspecified in the first 100 pages. What, for example, is the relationship between goblins and elves? Our protagonist is half-elf, half-goblin, and seems to be looked down on for that, but his mother was the empress in this elven court. So what are relations between the two races like? Are there many half-goblins? Is our protagonist disliked because of that, or something else? I couldn't grasp the key elements that would allow me access into the logic of this world -- things I consider far more important that the differences in addressing the empress vs the widow empress, which is what we actually learn.

Minutiae seemed to be the book's main concern. It starts eventfully enough, with our protagonist finding out that he's suddenly emperor in the opening pages. But it feels as though we never miss a waking moment of his life from that point on. Every day, we learn how he wakes up, how he is dressed, how he replies to political letters, how he talks to interchangeable-seeming people whose complicated fantasy names all start with C, how he doesn't know who to trust, how he eats, how he goes to bed. There's very little urgency to the story, and very little plot, beyond a demonstration of how a new emperor might live in this fantasy court. I assume that actual plot must show up later, but 25% of the rather long book seems a reasonable amount of time for it to establish itself.

And the biggest problem? My simple inability to care about the protagonist, or most of the characters around him. I couldn't get a grip on Maia's personality, and the novel was written in a rather distant style that made it difficult for me to emphathize with him. His supporting cast were worse -- we met many of them (almost exclusively male), and they felt completely interchangeable. I feel that I must have missed something while I was reading, some key element that would have made the story click together, that would have given me an emotional connection with the protagonist and turned it into the compelling book I've seen people raving about.

Perhaps those things click on page 101, and I'm missing out on a fantastic read by bailing before the end. But I can't bear to force myself through a single page more.

If you're a fantasy fan who enjoys the genre for court politics and world-building details, this might be one for you. It's certainly been enjoyed by many people other than me. But if you're more of a character reader, like I am, then I don't recommend it. And it won't be getting my Hugo vote this year.