Robyn Reviews: The Goblin Emperor

‘The Goblin Emperor’ is a quiet fantasy novel with real emotion and heart. It avoids the battle scenes and epic magical powers usually associated with the fantasy genre, instead focusing entirely on court politics and one man trying to figure out how to rule a country without mortally offending – or being deposed by – all his subjects. There are moments of despair, of anger, of pain – but ultimately this is a hopeful story, an ideal balm for a tough day.

Maia, the emperor’s youngest son, has lived most of his life in exile. An unwanted reminder of the emperor’s fourth wife – and a stain on the Elvish line for his half-Goblin heritage – he’s never been educated on the ways of the Imperial Court, or ever expected to set foot in it. However, when an accident wipes out his father and his three elder brothers, Maia finds himself in the strange position of suddenly being crowned Emperor. He has no friends, no advisors, and no knowledge of court politics. Even worse, the accident might not have been so accidental – and the assassins could come back for Maia at any moment. Surrounded by scheming politicians and gossips, Maia can trust nobody. He must adjust to his new life as emperor and try to get to grips with the intricacies of court life before someone sees fit to depose him – or worse.

Maia is one of the sweetest fantasy protagonists of all time. He cares about everyone and just wants everyone to be happy – an impossible task when running an entire empire. He’s intelligent but quiet, and his lack of poise and tendency to get overwhelmed and flustered mean most others see him as an idiot. More than anything, Maia is lonely. Since his mother died when he was eight he hasn’t had a true friend – his guardian after her death was abusive, leaving him mentally and physically scarred, and as the emperor he can’t be seen to favour anyone. Maia is constantly making mistakes, but he tries his hardest to do the right thing despite his lack of education and understanding. His growth throughout the novel is wonderful to see, and every time he stands up for himself it makes you want to applaud.

While Maia is the only point-of-view character, there are several major supporting characters. Maia can’t be too friendly with any of them, so their depths aren’t fully explored, but all of them still feel well-rounded. There’s Cala and Beshelar, his sworn bodyguards – Cala overly relaxed and informal, Beshelar the complete opposite and a stickler for formality and protocol. There’s Csevet, Maia’s secretary who ensures he isn’t completely clueless what’s going on and essentially runs the empire while he figures out the basics. On the flipside, there’s the Lord Chancellor, a man who starts the novel by trying to delay Maia’s coronation and the rest making his job as emperor as difficult as possible – despite being outwardly helpful. There’s also his late father’s fifth wife, now a widow, who despises him for keeping her own children off the throne. There are hundreds more named characters – which can be overwhelming, and the novel likely doesn’t need so many, but it gives a good impression of how busy court life is and how many people an emperor has to remember.

Aside from Maia, it’s the worldbuilding that makes this novel great. The Elflands in ‘The Goblin Emperor’ have their own patterns of speech – with several different grades of formality depending on who is being addressed – distinct titles, a complex government and political hierarchy, and of course tangled relationships between the prominent families within the Elflands and the other lands on their borders – including the Goblin homeland. The detail is staggering, and Addison weaves it all in with great skill, dripfeeding information to both Maia and the reader gradually so its never overwhelming. The speech patterns in particular take a while to get used to – as do the various titles for people (denoting gender, marital status, and importance, among other things) – but after a while things start to make sense, and it makes the experience in a different culture more immersive.

The plot takes a backseat – this is more a study of a fictional culture, and to a lesser extent a character study of Maia. Events do happen – slowly, with no real overlying arc beyond the development of Maia’s character and the discovery of what caused his father and brothers to die – but there’s more focus on the minutiae of running a country, something which is glossed over in most books. There’s a great deal of attention paid to how it feels to be emperor – the lack of privacy, the inability to truly confide in anyone, the knowledge that everyone is using you for some sort of political gain. There are also smaller threads – Elfland society is patriarchal, and women’s rights are a recurring theme. The issue of having Goblin blood in an Elf-run society is raised less than the blurb would suggest – it seems to be regarded as more of an issue by Maia himself than anyone else, an interesting exploration of internalised racism. Moral dilemmas are regularly posed for both Maia and the reader to consider. Some passages can grow a little tedious – court life is repetitive – but the overall effect is immersive and intriguing.

There are minor issues. Some of the naming customs, combined with the sheer number of characters, mean that certain characters can become very difficult to tell apart and its not always clear why the reader should care. There’s a helpful glossary provided, but having to flick to and from a glossary on a regular basis affects the flow. The book is also probably a shade long – at 450ish pages its average or even short for epic fantasy, but certain sections do start to stray too much into banality and could be trimmed down without affecting the books overall feel. In general, however, its a very strong book, one that takes a very different angle to most fantasy novels and carries it off remarkably.

In summary, ‘The Goblin Emperor’ is a quiet and intimate fantasy novel that acts as a study of court politics and a character study of a young emperor rather than telling a complete story. For those interested in political machinations and what happens in fantasy kingdoms after all the fighting, or just looking for a heartwarming and hopeful read, this is the book for you.

A sequel set in the same world but focusing on a different character, ‘The Witness for the Dead’, was published by Solaris on 22nd July 2021.

Published by Solaris
Paperback: 21st March 2019

Robyn Reviews: Seven Deaths of an Empire

‘Seven Deaths of an Empire’ is a fast-paced gritty fantasy novel that draws clear inspiration from the Roman empire. With short chapters and constant action, it has huge appeal for fans of plot-driven fantasy – but for those looking for originality or character-driven fiction, it could prove a more difficult read.

The Emperor is dead. His son will be emperor after him, ensuring the ongoing strength and expansion of the empire – but first, the emperor’s body must be returned to the capital, allowing succession to formally take place. Whoever controls the body controls the empire. In the capital, General Bordan – a veteran of decades of service to the empire – works to quell the hints of rebellion and protect the heir to the throne. Meanwhile, Apprentice Magician Kyron finds himself part of the dead emperor’s honour guard, ensuring the preservation of the body and its safety on the long journey home. With war looming on the horizon, the fate of the very empire is at stake.

This is very much a plot-driven novel, with several overarching threads. Bordan senses a traitor in the emperor’s inner circle and works to sniff them out, trying to outmaneuver them before he’s outmaneuvered himself. This feels very reminiscent of the ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series and similar political fantasy, with many players none of whom can be fully trusted. Kyron, on the other hand, has more obvious threats on all sides. The forest he’s traveling through is full of tribespeople who hate the empire – after all, it’s trying to conquer them and steal their lands – and beyond that, the empire itself is mistrustful of magicians and magic, and many of his own company would happily see him dead. On top of all this, he’s been stuck with the company’s guide, a tribeswoman who challenges his opinions of the empire’s superiority. As he fights for the emperor and the empire, Kyron must decide if he’s actually on the right side.

Bordan and Kyron are interesting characters, although neither is easy to initially connect with. Kyron starts off a stroppy, entitled teenager, unshakeably convinced in the empire’s might and righteousness. His worldview is completely black and white, and he reacts to his worldview being challenged with anger and derision. Bordan starts off every inch the hard, military man, attacking first and asking questions later. He comes off argumentative, intolerant, and harsh, convinced that atrocities are worth it for the good of the empire. As the story goes on, more nuance appears. Doubt creeps into Kyron’s mind and he starts to question teachings he always took for the complete truth. Bordan starts to show signs of weariness, heart creeping in where previously the answer to everything was the sword. Both characters are complex, but as the story goes on they become far easier to relate to.

Some of the secondary characters are more intriguing than either Bordan or Kyron. Magician Padarn, Kyron’s master, is clearly an intelligent and well-travelled man who has a far more rounded view of the world and a subtle sense of humour. Emyln, the guide from the local tribes, is the best character in the entire book and I wish she had been given a perspective of her own. She’s loyal to her people but has agreed to help the empire, for reasons that later become clear, and challenges Kyron’s views in a remarkably patient manner. She’s clearly exceptionally intelligent and strong-willed, and I’m sure she’ll have a huge part to play in any sequels.

The initial pacing, unfortunately, is a slow drudge. I had to put this book down several times in the first third because nothing appeared to be happening, and the short chapters made it difficult to connect with either point-of-view character. Fortunately, once the world and situation are established and things start to happen, the action draws you in and it becomes much more enjoyable. It’s a shame the book doesn’t jump in at the fast pace it proceeds at for the majority of the novel, but many longer epic fantasy novels start slowly due to their complexity so its an understandable decision.

The worldbuilding itself will be familiar to anyone who reads a lot of epic fantasy. The setup is highly Roman inspired, with an empire gradually conquering all the surrounding lands which it sees as filled with barbaric tribes. The empire sees itself as saving these tribespeople by bringing religion – the Flame, which is clearly Christian Catholic inspired. Magic is part of the empire, but the church sees it as a stain and is highly distrustful of magicians – a nod to the Catholic inquisition. Matthews writes it well, creating a solid and believable setup, and whilst both setting and plot lack some originality they’re very readable.

Overall, ‘Seven Deaths of an Empire’ is a solid book for fans of action-packed epic fantasy with well-written battle scenes. For those familiar with the genre, little about the plot or setting is unique, but it carries out tried and tested tropes well. The beginning is a bit of a slog, but it becomes worth it for the much stronger end. Recommended for fans of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ or ‘The Rage of Dragons‘.

Thanks to NetGalley and Rebellion for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Solaris (Rebellion)
Hardback: 22nd June 2021

Book Review: Skyward Inn

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Humans had been through so many changes. Evolutionary changes, yes, but more than that, much more than that. Who lived where and who loved what and who hated who: what was allowed and what was forbidden and all of it changing, changing with every generation.”

Skyward Inn is science fiction that explores what it means to be human and its cost. It opens at the titular inn where the landlady, Jem, is drinking after hours with her assistant, Isley. They have run the place together for more than seven years, since they returned from Isley’s home planet, Qita.

Skyward Inn used to be called the Lamb and Flag, before Jem bought it with her military tour completion bonus. It is situated on a hill close to the rural community in Devon where Jem was born and raised – where her brother and son still live. This area is now part of The Western Protectorate – an area kept free from the computer connectivity, including implants, which the rest of the island accepts as a price worth paying for instant answers to questions along with other comforts and entertainments.

Jem and Isley declare their love for each other but do not touch – at his insistence. When customers have left, they reminisce about their time on Qita, an area now mined for resources. History reports that the Qitans gave up their world peacefully when humans invaded, that it was a war without casualties. The alien population are not, however, made welcome on Earth. Isley has done his best to assimilate – although his world translates this idea differently. He is still treated with suspicion by locals.

Fosse, Jem’s teenage son, lives with his uncle, Dom. The boy dreams of leaving the confines of the Protectorate, although with no clear idea of where he would go. Dom is a pillar of the community, responsible for the trades that enable its residents to acquire goods and services they cannot provide for themselves. People who can afford it want more than can be made available and a black market flourishes – a weakness in the supposedly strict control over comings and goings.

News of an encroaching virus leads to changes in travel rules and quarantine. Then three strangers arrive and take over an abandoned farm. Fosse is drawn to the interlopers, especially the women. He fears the man and his manipulations – his apparent power over his companions. Fosse is torn between a feeling of invasion and the prospect of a path towards his own escape.

Skyward Inn also has an uninvited visitor to contend with. Won is a Qitian whose arrival upsets Jem due to her apparent closeness to Isley. He shows no surprise at her presence but is concerned by her predicament. Won’s ability to travel has malfunctioned – her suit requires a replacement part. To get rid of her, Jem must take the risk of asking the law-abiding Dom for help.

“All it took was the arrival of one more Qitan and I’ve begun to separate this situation into sides. How human I am, no matter how hard I try. We residents of the Western Protectorate, setting up our boundaries, priding ourselves on not being barbaric compared to the tiny villages not a few miles away. Being human is the problem, the huge problem in a nutshell”

The story is mostly told from the points of view of Jem and Fosse. It explores how power revolves around information, and the human need to feel appreciated – to belong. There is an instinct to protect what is believed rightfully owned, be it people, property or values. There is arrogance in what is assumed to be a right, whatever the cost to other beings.

Earthlings do not understand Qitan society. The aliens are assumed to be peace loving because they did not put up a fight for Qita. This is regarded as weakness, the Quitans assumed to pose little threat to their invaders. Differing principles lead to a lackadaisical approach to finding out what is valued and why. As the truth is gradually revealed, Jem must make a difficult choice.

This is a prescient tale for a time when nationalism appears to be on the rise and historical accuracy is being questioned. It may be human instinct to fear the outsider, but change arrives whether or not it is invited.

Any Cop?: In her writing, Aliya Whiteley presents important topics to consider with the lightest of touches. This is a story to be enjoyed for its imaginative world building and development that can be mined for so much more.

 

Jackie Law

Robyn Reviews: Skyward Inn

‘Skyward Inn’ is a beautifully written and profoundly strange piece of speculative fiction. It goes in a completely different direction to what I expected before picking it up, with creepy, almost gothic, undertones, but the quality of the writing makes it hard to look away.

Skyward Inn is a place of refuge – a place people of the Western Protectorate come to drink brew and reminisce on simpler times before the war between Earth and Qita. Run by a human, Jem, and a Qitayan, Isley, both veterans of the war, it epitomises the peace that now exists between the races. But peace is a fragile thing, and the arrival of an unexpected friend of Isley’s threatens to upset the balance. As things start to change, Jem must decide where her loyalties lie.

The story is told from two perspectives – Jem’s, in first person, and Fosse’s, in third. The perspectives change regularly, so the use of both first and third person works well, clearly delineating which character is being followed. Jem is a fascinating character. She fled her home in the Western Protectorate as soon as she could, abandoning her family for adventure – and formed a strong connection with Isley, another outsider who’d never quite felt they fit in. She and Isley spent years trading stories, eventually returning to the Western Protectorate (once Devon) to open their Inn. Jem is a fiercely independent woman, the sort who struggles to form any deep connection with anyone – and as time goes on, it becomes clear that she doesn’t even know Isley as well as she should. She feels guilty for abandoning her family, but at the same time she sees the world more in dreams than reality, and a life shackled to the same village is no place for a dreamer.

Fosse is a teenager struggling with his changing desires. Raised by his uncle Dom, he doesn’t feel like he quite fits – he’s not accepted by the other children, and he’s frequently overwhelmed by urges like anger. Fosse is harder for me to relate to than Jem, but he makes an intriguing counterpart – very different in many ways but also very similar in some. His naivety and raging emotions are painted starkly by Whiteley, and whilst his head isn’t always a comfortable place to be, it’s undeniably very human.

The plot is slow, spreading out gradually like a fungus. The reader is introduced to the characters and setting – a very recognisable traditional rural village in many ways, albeit with a few stark differences – with Jem and Fosse seeming very separate, before everything is gradually brought together in an intricate web of connections. About halfway through, the book changes tone, going from a literary science fiction novel to more audacious and strange speculative fiction. The first half is more my speed than the second, but both are brilliantly written and nothing feels out of place. The ending is fitting, leaving a few loose ends but not so many that the book feels incomplete. It’s an intriguing concept, and while it’s not one I expected it’s certainly thought-provoking and intelligently done.

Overall, ‘Skyward Inn’ is a clever – if odd in places – speculative fiction novel that lingers beyond the last page. It isn’t what I expected from the blurb, but equally it’s an impossible novel to summarise without giving anything away. Recommended for fans of speculative fiction and literary fiction that goes a bit off piste.

Published by Solaris
Hardback: 18th March 2021

Robyn Reviews: Shadow in the Empire of Light

‘Shadow in the Empire’ of light is a profoundly strange book. It’s packed with adult themes yet the narrator – supposedly in her twenties – reads like a child, leading to a disjointed experience. The ideas are good, but none of them quite fit together comfortably. The end result is a book which isn’t a bad read, but which tries to be too many things at once and ends up being none of them.

Shine is a mundane in a powerful family of mages – and worse, her mother disappeared when she was a baby, leaving her to be brought up by the family outcasts. Now, trapped working with the peasants on her aunt’s estate by her aunt’s ill-health, she tries to make the most of what she has – but her careful equilibrium is disrupted by the arrival of the annual Fertility Festival, the Blessings, bringing with it a fugitive spy, several cousins with a vendetta, the mystery of a stolen letter, and enough family drama to last a lifetime. Her only ally a telepathic cat, Katti, Shine must navigate these complicated waters – and see if she can somehow set up the future she’s always dreamt of.

I was intrigued by many aspects of this novel. For one thing, a telepathic cat is never going to be a bad addition – but Katti’s presence never really added anything to the story, and she could have been removed entirely without any of the plot changing. Similarly, complicated family dynamics are often great fun to read about – but the dynamics here were a mess. Everyone in Shine’s family has a name related to light – Shine, Bright, Lucentia, Sparklea – and the names all start to blur together. Worse, there are just so many of them it doesn’t matter that they all get confused, because barely any of them are developed beyond a name anyway. Many of them are almost interchangeable. This is less complicated family dynamics and more twenty kids left unattended in the playground.

Shine herself is actually an interesting enough character. All her life, she thought she’d be a powerful mage, and she was distraught when she found out she was incapable of even the smallest spell. She has a great deal of insecurity about her lack of magic – and also about her mixed-race background, in a family where strong magical breeding is hugely important. Her desires to get away from her family and create a life for herself are very relatable, and her loyalty to her aunt and estranged cousin is commendable. Unfortunately, she doesn’t really do a great deal for the entire novel. Things happen to her – sometimes genuinely intriguing things – but they’re all orchestrated by those around her. For a protagonist, Shine does an awful lot of confused spectating It might be better if some of her supporting characters were removed, and Shine was given more of a chance to do things for herself.

I also have to mention the Blessings, a central part of the novel. The Blessings are a fertility festival – and in Shine’s world, this means everyone having sex with each other all the time. I don’t mind sex scenes in novels, but I wasn’t expecting them in this one, especially with a narrator who sounds so young. The sex scenes themselves also used some unfortunate euphemisms. Some people may like them, but I found them out of place and unnecessary – and I can’t understand why, in a supposedly sex-positive society, it’s so hard to call a clitoris a clitoris rather than some kind of floral euphemism.

The worldbuilding is the best part of this novel. The idea of a society ruled by mages, with the mundanes (non-mages) living in comparative poverty, is well-trodden territory, but the matriarchal nature of mage society is a fresh addition. Magic was clearly limited, with each major exertion leaving the character drained for some time, with powers requiring both innate ability and crystals – how these work is never explained, but it’s a solid basis for a magic system. There’s nothing particularly new about the setting, but it could easily be the backdrop for a great novel.

Overall, ‘Shadow in the Empire of Light’ suffers from having too many characters and an amalgamation of childish ideas (the light themed names, Shine’s general demeanour) with very adult ones. It would be a much stronger read if there was less going on.

Thanks to Solaris for providing me with a copy of this to review – this in no way affects the review’s contents

Published by Solaris
Paperback: 19th January 2021