The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

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Books like The Goblin Emperor come around maybe once in a decade. Books that can go against the grain of their genre’s direction and be wildly successful, hopefully spurring on a new trend that adds new dimensions to the genre it sits in. With The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison has written the antidote to all that gritty ‘grimdark’ that’s been doing the rounds for the last ten years or so, with a story that does not entirely dismiss their thematic tropes but twists them into a newer, more hopeful direction.

The premise for the story is simple: Maia is the son of the emperor, but not the heir. He is the son of the emperor’s third wife, and through no fault of his own has spent most of his life relegated to an estate far from the capital with his jealous and cynical cousin Setheris. As the book begins Maia is told that the emperor and all of his sons – Maia’s elder brothers – have perished in an airship crash, and lo and behold Maia is the new emperor. The book is essentially Maia’s story as he navigates his way around an unfamiliar court filled with ambitious and traitorous family members, politicians and nobles – and just maybe his father’s airship accident wasn’t so accidental after all.

The Goblin Emperor is that oh-so-wondrous of beasts: a simple story well told. Maia is our one and only point-of-view, and Addison makes the reader feel as if his problems were our own. The connection between Maia and the reader is intense and his instant and constant likeability is a big factor in what makes the whole book work so well. Maia is completely out of his depth in his court, and through the use of a complex hierarchy and formal language style unique to the book the reader feels as much of an outsider as he does. But Maia is so consistent and unwilling to give up that he gives this book a really refreshing feel that I’ve not seen in fantasy in a long time. It’s hopeful. Yes, there’s darkness there and it hints at a harsh world outside of the court (as well as some hinted at xenophobia due to Maia’s goblin heritage) but because of Maia it never loses that sense of a light at the end of the tunnel.

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Of course a good book needs a good supporting cast and honestly The Goblin Emperor has one of the best I’ve read bar none. Whether it is Maia’s secretary Csevet (who will be any reader’s favourite), his nohecharei (bodyguards) Beshelar and Cala, his personal helpers (or edocharei), or even the more sinister characters like his cousin Setheris or Lord Chancellor Chavar, they all feel so incredibly well realised that it’s a joy to read. The core cast is kept relatively small, with the setting also contained almost exclusively to the elvish court, allowing for an intimacy that’s rare in epic fantasy nowadays. And it IS epic fantasy – this is just a perspective we’ve never had before.

The plot is a constant driving force, with Maia’s struggles always at the forefront, and when something big occurs it really is impossible to put down. Some might find the formal language (occasional thees and thous, but it’s rare and does work for a good reason) and naming conventions a bit difficult to get round (there is a guide at the back of the book, but I didn’t read it until I got there and found I’d managed fine by the end) and if court politics and little actual sword-on-sword action sounds like it might bore you then maybe it’s not the book for you.

But for me it was an absolute revelation. Quite genuinely this book is one of the best I have ever read. It will be reread many times and has become, for me, an instant favourite. As much as I read it is rare nowadays to find a book so hard to put down and so impossible to put down for the last time. Turning that last page was heartbreaking, knowing it’s finished and that I’ve come to the end of Maia’s story. But I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that before long I’ll pick The Goblin Emperor up again, if only for a little hope.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a story about family. It’s difficult to discuss for fear of spoilers, and indeed, some reviewers have opted to ‘spoil’ the big reveal that – as the back of the book states is around page 77 – but I’m going to try and write my way around it. Rosemary is our narrator for this story, and she tells it in a style I’ve never come across before. We start in the middle, go back to the beginning, the middle again, the beginning and then the end which returns to the beginning again. Bits and pieces are revealed about Rosemary’s life out of order, allowing the reader to form opinions before they have all the information. It’s all very clever and extremely well executed. But really the story is about Rosemary’s family.

When Rosemary was 5 years old her sister, Fern, left the family. It’s unclear initially whether she went missing or was sent away but it’s an event that has had an impact on Rosemary’s life ever since. As Fern was the same age as Rosemary it’s an immediate hook that draws the reader in. Rosemary/Fowler quickly tells us that several years later her older brother, Lowell, also left under mysterious and foreboding circumstances. Rosemary’s parents are aloof and seen through the lens of both the older Rosemary telling us this story and a younger Rosemary, through the memories older Rosemary has of those times. The family drama is all realistically developed and often quite sinister as things begin to loom. There’s never a doubt that something’s coming. A big reveal.

And it doesn’t disappoint. It’s not even something enormously shocking. Once it comes you’ll go ‘huh, that makes sense’ and realise there’s still well over three quarters of the book left. Everything before page 77 is informed in hindsight by the reveal, but everything after is still the same story. It’s still all about Rosemary and her family. What I’m trying to say is that despite this enormous twist being touted as such a big deal, it’s not a book that lives and dies on the strength of how it pulls the wool over the eyes of the reader. Because it doesn’t. There’s a very good reason we don’t know about it beforehand, and Rosemary/Fowler lets us know why. It’s not just a gimmick.

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The characters in the book are fantastic. As Rosemary reveals everything out of order, sometimes even going back to earlier scenes once we have more information, the characters are layered in a very unusual way. Whether Rosemary’s friend Harlowe, who initially comes across as a borderline psychotic prima donna but becomes a lot more, or her brother Lowell who stays very much in the background of the story for a lot of the book until he becomes just as vital as Rosemary herself. They’re all realistic and feel as though they exist both within Rosemary’s narrative – skewed as it is by her unique point of view – and out of it.

This is a very difficult book to discuss with anyone who hasn’t read it, as my jumbled and confused ‘review’ shows. But trust me when I say it is worthy of your time. A gripping and very unusual (while also very deliberately…normal) family drama it is both something different and something familiar. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is thought-provoking, funny, tragic and heartwarming.

(Just don’t go for the audiobook.)

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

 

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Warbreaker is a standalone epic fantasy from prolific author Brandon Sanderson. Another set in his overarching Cosmere (though no prior knowledge is required) it is very much a traditional fantasy, filled with princesses, gods, magic swords, rebellions, mercenaries and of course: a patented Sanderson magic system. This magic system is all to do with breath and colour or…something. The story follows two Idrian princesses: Siri and Vivenna. Vivenna (the stoic, brave and ultimately naïve one) has been trained all her life to be the consort to the infamous Godking of Hallandren, a neighbouring country, but for, erm, reasons (I think) Siri (the free-spirited, manic-pixie-dream-girl one) is sent in her stead. When Vivenna finds out she goes to ‘save’ her younger sister and they get involved in conspiracies, an uprising, courtly weirdness and…well, the usual.

There’s nothing in Warbreaker that we haven’t seen before, especially from Brandon Sanderson. Vivenna and Siri are two halves of the same coin, but neither are all that well developed. They stumble from one plot point to the next – they are, in fact, like Vin from Mistborn, if someone split Vin in half and called the parts left over Vivenna and Siri. Likewise, the plot is very similar to Mistborn: there’s the uprising against the evil ruler, the crazy magic system, the spunky heroine(s), the grouchy yet loveable rogues that mentor them. It’s all been done before and better by Mr. Sanderson himself. Yes, there are some interesting twists, mainly involving the Gods and Godking that are a bit more unique and add a bit of flavour to the world. A subplot involving a lesser God called Lightsong is most interesting as it shows off Sanderson’s ability to create strange worlds with weird hierarchies as well as the zany magic systems he’s known for.

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And that magic system. Hoo-boy. I liked the metals thing in Mistborn – it was pretty cool and kinda Matrix-ey. I find the multiple magic systems of the Stormlight Archive really interesting as they’re bonkers and not even the characters understand them. He did a great job manipulating the rules for the One Power in the Wheel of Time, creating some of the best sequences in that whole series. But this Biochromatic breath thing made very little sense to me. It was all a bit unnecessary too, like he felt the need to have this system wedged in when it’s all a bit superfluous to the plot (though the plot isn’t exactly packed out). Some of the more mysterious aspects of it worked well (the magic sword, Nightblood, in particular, along with some of the Gods’ abilities) but when it was explained in plain terms it was all a bit hard to swallow, even for epic fantasy. I would try to explain it in more detail here but, well, life’s too short.

I think Brandon Sanderson’s writing has come on leaps and bounds over the years. Working on the Wheel of Time shows a definite step-up in his abilities. His prose is often a bit stale and basic, but his imagination is incredible (whatever you think of the books) and he does have a knack for writing characters that can leap off the page with their charisma. But Warbreaker is without doubt a weaker entry in his back-catalogue. There’s some interesting stuff going on in the background and a couple of fun characters, but the plot always hinges on the EPIC and yet never really gets there. It’s like a longer series was cut short and shoehorned into this standalone novel that ends with a bit of a whimper. But in many ways I’m glad it ended up this way – the Brandon Sanderson of Wheel of Time/Stormlight Archive fame would struggle to make much more of this, an older book from a younger writer – and it shows. Everything is just reaching for another level that, unfortunately, it never really achieves.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic novel with a bit of a difference. Like The Stand without all the fantasy and horror (though it’s creepy in places) Station Eleven focuses on the survival of culture after a mass flu that wipes out 99% of the world’s population. It begins with the death on stage of a famous actor, Arthur Leander, and propels outwards from there, both into the past and the future, following the people connected with Arthur and how cultural memory lives on even under extreme circumstances. There’s a varied cast and an interestingly realistic take on an end-of-the-world scenario.

In the past we follow Arthur and his first wife, Miranda, the creator of comic book Dr. Eleven, something that resonates throughout the story and affects characters before the world ends and after. In the present/immediate aftermath is Jeevan, a paparazzo turned paramedic who is connected – sometimes conveniently – to Arthur Leander throughout his life. As Jeevan is given an early indication of how bad the flu is he hoards himself and his brother up in their apartment and we get to witness much of the end-world from his point of view. There is another character who experiences the end of civilisation in a very different fashion to Jeevan later in the book – saying who would be verging on spoilers – but this section was easily my favourite in the book. Twenty years in the future we follow Kirsten Raymonde and the Traveling Symphony, a band of musicians and actors who travel parts of North America. Theirs is the storyline that is returned to the most regularly and perhaps that with what could most realistically be called a ‘plot’. They become tangled with a group of evangelicals led by a man who calls himself the ‘Prophet’.

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The most unusual aspect of this book is not really its realistic take on the end of the world (which is very well done) but its odd structure, jumping between past/present/future at fairly random moments to fill in a complete picture of what connects all of the characters. I’m a bit torn on whether I felt this worked. There’s a bit of a disconnect between the reader and the characters at times, with Leander and Kirsten being our de-facto main characters, and yet neither are particularly likeable or easy to relate to. Jeevan, who is introduced first, is one of our main point of views for the world as it ends, and yet he is really no more than a convenient cipher, helping with exposition and being there when the author needs him to be. It’s a shame because the sections set during the flu crisis and its immediate aftermath, as society breaks down, are by far the most interesting.

The thematic idea behind the book is mostly well realised if a bit tenuous, hanging on this comic that survives the end-times as well as the memory of a womanising actor who we’re supposed to empathise with. It’s interesting and does act well as a link between the characters, especially as the book progresses and their relationships become clearer between each time period, but at times it felt a bit tagged on with the comic in particular being a little on the nose with regards to how it acts as a metaphor for the events in the lives of the main characters.

But I did enjoy Station Eleven, despite my reservations. It’s an admirable experiment at doing something a bit different in a post-apocalyptic novel when they’re seemingly everywhere at the moment. A bit slow at times and it doesn’t read as seamless as is perhaps intended, but Station Eleven is interesting, at times quite wonderful, and without doubt unique.