As both a Hugo and Nebula nominee, The Goblin Emperor is owed more consideration than can be found in a simple star rating. Especially as I will be voting for the Hugo in a few months, I need to be able to fully articulate where I see this book standing in relation to both its fellows on the ballot and to the genre as a whole.
In both senses, I find it lacking. Which certainly isn’t to say that it is bad: it’s perfectly pleasant. It is, in fact, a delightfully easy read. I read it in an afternoon which shows that it is neither ponderous nor annoying. The characters, such as they are, are likable enough and their motivations (though broad) are plausible.
One notable positive was the book’s attempt to bring back some of the depth of the English language’s pronouns. It would occasionally use the now-archaic informal “thee/thou/thy” instead of “you/your”. And it used “we” as a stand-in for a formal “I” which English has never had (at least, as far as I know).
Unfortunately, “thee” and “thou” sound horribly formal to modern ears, even when those ears know better. And it was extremely confusing trying to figure out who sentences were about with no distinction between the formal first-person singular and the more typical first-person plural “we”. This confusion was magnified because man characters had multiple titles and names. Context didn’t always make it clear if one person was talking of themselves of of a group.
None of which should be taken as a criticism. I love playing with language and I was pleased to see the attempt to bring more depth to our pronouns. That the experiment fell a little flat is no failure and it was easy to sit back and let the exposition wash over me without worrying too much about which character was saying what.
That, I think, starts to hint at my true criticisms of the book: the characters largely don’t matter. They are all exceptionally cookie-cutter. There’s “corrupt vizier”, “loyal advisor”, “devoted guard”, etc. The fact that I couldn’t keep them straight didn’t really matter since I knew they would all act according to type anyway.
Nowhere is that more in evidence than in the “traitor guard” who was a “devoted guard” until the moment of his betrayal. Neither the characters nor the reader could see it coming because the guard didn’t really transition from loyalty to treachery; instead there was just a switch flipped from one to the other. It was forced and inorganic.
None of which is to ignore the main character who, aside from being the person the book is about, is hardly even present in the story. He moves from room to room and people say things and things happen to him, but he could mostly be replaced by a shop dummy with little change to the writing.
Until the very end where he suddenly becomes a great emperor, at least. Somehow. Maybe by asking questions? It’s not really clear — he goes from being completely out of his depth to being a good ruler with no real transition. That’s just how the story was supposed to end. So it did.
The rest of the plot is like that. There is an attempted coup which starts suddenly and then ends. It didn’t really affect anyone or anything (though “traitor guard” was replaced with “devoted [female] guard” to no real effect).
Absolutely none of which is to say this is a bad book! It’s fine. It’s a nice afternoon’s diversion and lets you play the game of imagining what it would be like to be emperor for the day (aka, “the King Ralph scenario”). It’s good clean fun. But to deserve that “Nebula Award Winner” sticker, a book needs more than a fun premise combined with flat characters. And I couldn’t find that something here.