YA Fantasy with light steam, a touch of punk, and a heavy dose of politics. Sympathetic main character captured my heart.
The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an "accident," he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.
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Source: I purchased this book myself from Audible. (Plus I borrowed the ebook from my library to have access to the appendices and to get the correct spellings.)
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, read by Kyle McCarley, published by Tantor Audio (2014) / Length: 16 hrs 25 min - This book is standalone and not part of any series.
Why do I love a book where everyone has at least three names, political intrigue is the focus, and nothing really happens? Ok, it’s not true that nothing happens, only that the action is a minor part of the story. But everyone really does have multiple names & titles (in a complex fictional language to boot). As for the politics, they aren't my kinds of thing and only the glowing reviews convinced me to give it a try anyway. This book may not be for you if those things are a deal breaker.
So, if you are still with me, why do I love this book? The characters, and the story that flows from them. I will always prefer a story that seems to follow naturally from the people who inhabit it. When asking myself why I dislike a book that is crazy popular, it is usually because I feel like the author had a story (plot) s/he wanted to tell and the characters are just puppets inside it. I can't connect with someone if I never feel like I know them.
While this is a long (and sometimes slow) book, I never felt impatient. I was content to be with Maia as he struggled to become not just a true adult, but an Emperor and someone who wasn't tied to his past or the mistakes of those who came before.
Note: although this book deals with many serious subjects, there were sufficient moments of lightness and humor included to avoid getting bogged down.
Maia Drazhar (aka Edrehasivar VII): 18 year old exiled son of the former emperor. Has spent the last 10 years living with an abusive guardian in near total isolation. He desperately wants to do the right thing, but is very unsure of himself. Not only is he completely unprepared for his new responsibilities, but he struggles just to interact with the crowds of people who now surround him.
Chenelo (Maia's mother): Although she died when he was only 8, this would have been a different book without her. She is the only reason he knows anything about love & compassion and, I believe, the reason he continues to check himself when he responds the way his more recent past has conditioned him to.
Some of my favorites among the giant cast of supporting characters include: Maia’s 14 year old nephew Idra and young nieces Mireän & Ino. / Maia’s prickly and aggressive fiancée (whose name I won’t reveal) / Cala & Kiru Athmaza (mage bodyguards) / the signet maker / Arbelan (Maia’s father’s first, barren, wife)
There is both magic and steampunk technology (airships, pneumatic message tubes, etc) in this world, but neither is the focus. Some of my favorite moments, include it though.
The main "world" is the giant city-size palace of the emperor. Maia enters it early in the book leaves it only a few times after that. Ms Addison has created an entire culture encapsulated within it's capital. Certain rooms begin to have their own character, as Maia attaches emotions to the things that take place there or plans things to take place in them because of his feelings towards them.
I think the beginning was perfect. It starts with the event that changes Maia life (his receiving notice of his father & brothers' deaths). It gives us a glimpse of what his life was like before, and introduces two significant characters, one who anchored his past and one who will be instrumental in anchoring his future.
It should be noted that not every hand is against him throughout the book, I doubt I would have been able to stick it out in that case. He does find some supporters, as well as a few loyal & friendly opponents; but, still, he is a young man being slowly crushed by the weight of the empire he now rules, and he feels little hope of finding any true friends.
Although I wanted his story to continue on (I would definitely have loved to see his wedding and to read about him as a father), the book ends in a good place.
HIGHLIGHTS / CAUTIONS :
- Any scene with Maia and his nieces & nephew
- The only scene in which our mages do any actual magic
“Oh yes…[he is]…very dead.”
- Maia’s childlike wonder over an animatronic bridge model
"Maia’s chest felt full of amazement, like a great glowing ball he could barely breathe around."
..."Maia watched as the two ends of the bridge reached slowly and yearningly for each other, knowing he was as wide-eyed and entranced as a child listening to a wonder-tale and in that moment not caring. The bridge was more marvelous than any amount of imperial dignity was worth."
- Maia's character growth
"He was not stupid and he was not incapable. He remembered the moment when his thoughts had inverted themselves—that shift from not being able to please everyone to not trying..."
- Before the book began, Maia spent 10 years living with a guardian who was emotionally, verbally, and physically abusive. Some of those incidents are related; and Maia struggles with self-worth and self-judgement.
- In this world Elves are white and Goblins are black (true white & black, as opposed to pink & brown). Mixed-race children are various shades of gray. Having grown up with his abusive guardian in the land of the elves, Maia struggles with his own perceptions that Goblin features (including his own) are less attractive or even ugly.
- At one point, Maia receives an offer of "companionship" (to which he has no clue how to respond).
- It is revealed that one of the side characters had a (married) same-sex lover, for which he was persecuted; one of Maia’s aunts has a wife; and there is at least one other M/M couple mentioned.
I am so grateful for Mr. McCarley's expert narration; the language and names are so difficult that I might have been lost with out him. (I was thrilled when he responded to my request for an interview.) / Perhaps my only complaint was that his "little girl" voices aren't the best. / I listened on 1.25 speed (my usual)
Note: For me at least, the sound volume is low on this one. I always have to turn it up when switching from a different book.
Talk to Me (pretty please)
- In the past, I have avoided books that center on political intrigue. Can you recommend any other scifi/fantasy books such as this one, where characters make the politics interesting?
- What's your opinion on fantasy books that transfer real world issues of race to fictional races?
- What kinds of books do you find unsuited for audio? Check out the interview below for the narrator's thoughts on that.
- If you are a first time visitor, how did you discover my blog?
- I recently debuted my redesigned blog. What do you think?
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Bonus Narrator Interview
(scroll down for more)
How in the world did you manage the difficult language and complicated naming in this book?
I always pre-read the books I narrate (with the exception of non-fiction non-narrative) before I start recording to familiarize myself with the story, the characters, and any unfamiliar words. That last bit is particularly important when it comes to things in the fantasy and sci-fi realms, as authors frequently give characters and places unusual names, and sometimes even invent new languages. The Goblin Emperor was particularly tricky on that front. During the pre-read, I'll make a list of these unfamiliar words, check with my friend Google to see if he can help with, and then pass the rest on to, hopefully, the author, and failing that, the publisher (sometimes authors don't like to give out their contact information. Katherine was more than willing on this one, though).
The most difficult part comes when the author responds with an attempt at phonetically spelling out the sounds of these words, as there's no hard and fast rules for what those phonetic spellings actually sound like. I think Katherine was aware of this, though, and she was pretty keen on getting things right, so she helped out a lot with offering English words that had the sound she was spelling in them. For instance, Maia Drazhar was spelled out "MY-ah dra-ZHAR (zh as in 'pleasure')." If there's any ambiguity (and if I have the time to do so before a deadline), I'll ask for clarification. Otherwise, I just go with my best guess and hope for the best!
What motivated you to become an audiobook narrator?
I grew up on stages in community theatre, church, and school. All I ever wanted was to be a big shot Hollywood movie star some day. I studied at the University of Southern California's School of Theatre, graduated with a BA, and somewhere along the line, I lost my passion for acting on stages and in front of cameras. But while I was in school, I wrote, directed, and played multiple roles in an online radio play for a World of Warcraft fansite called WoW Radio. After floundering about for about a year after graduating, not really sure what I was doing with myself anymore, I thought back on that radio play and said, "You know, that whole voice over thing seems like it could be fun. Maybe I should take a class on that." I immediately fell in love, and I realized I didn't want to be in front of a camera anymore, I wanted to voice cartoon characters. So I started working toward that, and that swiftly branched out into other niches that fell under the umbrella of "voice over," including audiobooks.
In fact, audiobooks were kind of my primary source of income for a long while there, and still account for a good chunk of the work I do. I think the biggest inspiration for me in terms of that particularly niche of voice over was memories of listening to Jim Dale narrate the Harry Potter series on road trips with my family in middle school and high school (and eventually alone in a college dorm room by the time Deathly Hallows came out). I always loved the sense of mystical wonder his narration conjured up, and his uncanny ability to create distinct, unique character voices for the literally hundreds of characters in those books, which is something I try to emulate in as much of the work I do as I can, as well.
What's the best part about being a narrator? The worst?
I think what's most entertaining when you're narrating an audiobook is that you get to play every single character. Even in the voice over world, where appearances don't matter, you end up playing a lot of characters that are of similar "types" (just check out some of the anime I've worked on and you'll see what I mean). And it makes sense; just because I can do the voice of a 90 year old man doesn't mean I can do it better than an actual 90 year old voice actor, so why would anybody cast me in that role over him? But in audiobooks, it's just you reading all the parts. So you get a chance to play a little more.
But narrating audiobooks, at least in the modern era, is a bit of a lonely existence. I have a friend who somehow managed to narrate 100 books within the span of a year, and I can't fathom cooping myself up in my home studio that much. In the old days, you'd go into a studio and work with a director and an engineer, which is still the case with a lot of the other work I do. But audiobooks are almost all produced in home studios now. There have been some stretches where I've gone from one book to another in rapid succession, but it gets taxing spending six hours a day, seven days a week all by your lonesome talking to a computer screen. I love the work, but I love it a lot more when I can break it up a little, just so I don't get cabin fever.
Audiobook / eBook / Paperbooks? Which is your favorite and why?
Well, I'm probably a bit biased, but I like audiobooks. I'd definitely say that some books are better suited for the medium than others (George R. R. Martin books take an eternity when you can't skim past the three page descriptions of a character's costume), but I enjoy the immersion. I think it requires a good narrator, though; a bad one can really bring a good story down. A good one can make a bad story not-so-bad, too. I also have trouble finding time to read things I'm not narrating, and audiobooks are great fodder for road trips, which is kind of an accurate description for driving anywhere in Los Angeles.
What are your pet peeves when listening to an audiobook?
Mispronunciations have to be the biggest one. There's no real excuse for that; part of the job is learning how to say the words you don't know correctly. I'll admit I've been guilty of it a couple times, but only because my upbringing had me wholeheartedly convinced that the wrong pronunciation was the right one. Luckily, the quality control folks at Tantor (the publisher for The Goblin Emperor and a vast majority of the other audiobooks I've done) are really good at catching that sort of thing. I get defensive about it, too. "What? That's not how you say that. Google, prove me right, so I can prove them wrong!" And then, of course, Google does the exact opposite.
It also irritates me a little bit when a narrator makes no effort to differentiate characters from one another. I understand that not everybody excels at doing character voices, and some genres call for more realistic sounding characters, which limits what kinds of voices you can do, but you've gotta give the listener some kind of indication as to who's talking. Plus, nothing's better sleep medicine than listening to the monotony of a narrator who says everything the same way for eight hours.
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