Voidhawk.com Book and film reviews


“The Goblin Emperor” by Katherine Addison

goblin emperor

In some ways this feels like a very traditional epic fantasy, it has elves and goblins in it, it is set in an empire with an ancient history and its main character is a young man plucked from obscurity to play a crucial role in the fate of the empire. In other ways, this is less traditional, there’s no dark lord to overthrow, no epic quest and no pitched battles between good and evil. There’s enough here to inspire some nostalgia for the epic fantasies I used to read when I was a teenager but in many ways this is a more interesting story.

The book starts with the protagonist Maia being woken in the middle of the night by a courier sent to tell him that his father and half-brothers have been killed in an airship accident. Since his father was the Emperor and his elder brothers were his father’s heirs this means that Maia is suddenly thrust into the position of being the next ruler of the Empire of the Elves. As the book’s title alludes to, this is something that many of his new subjects find controversial since Maia is half-breed, his late mother having been a goblin who married the Emperor in a short-lived and unhappy political marriage. Maia has grown up in obscurity, effectively in exile in a distant part of the Empire under the care of his often cruel cousin and warder, and with no contact with his father or other living family. There is a huge amount of culture shock as he suddenly finds himself in the capital living at the Royal Court where he knows no-one and where he knows little of the workings of the Empire. As the book goes on Maia must deal with the various challenges of the situation, ranging from challenges to his rule from ambitious nobles to more personal challenges as he has to find a way to be happy in his new role. He is a young man with trouble making friends when there is an inevitable separation from his subjects and it is difficult to tell friend from foe.

Although there are a number of interesting plot points, including a couple of conspiracies against Maia’s rule and the investigation into the airship disaster that brought him to the throne, I wouldn’t say this is a particularly plot-driven book. Instead, the main attraction here is the characterisation and the setting. I found Maia to be a very compelling character, it’s very easy to like him and sympathise with some of the troubles he encounters. If I had a criticism it would be that occasionally his actions seem a bit too selfless (he tends to be a bit too forgiving to some of his enemies, for example), but he is an interesting character and gets some good character development as he learns how to adapt himself to the new role he finds himself in. The supporting characters are also interesting with some good subtle characterisation where sometimes it is important to pay more attention to character’s actions than what Maia thinks of them since, at least at first, he isn’t always the best judge of character, and being the Emperor people will tend to tell him things they think he wants to hear rather than what they necessarily think themselves. It’s also possible to see how the perceptions of other characters towards their Emperor changes as the book goes on, many of the characters seeming to have judged him based on what he was or what they have heard of him, and as they get to know him better their opinions of them change in a variety of ways.

There may be a small number of brief action scenes but for the most the part plot advancement is done via dialogue as Maia tries to navigate the convoluted world of court intrigue. Despite the lack of the type of action traditionally seen in epic fantasy stories there do manage to be some tense scenes as Maia’s grasp on power can start to seem fairly tenuous as the book goes on. I think it manages to be a compelling story although the finale to one particular plot thread does fall a bit flat and it does feel like the novel ends slightly abruptly (although on a fairly appropriate note).

I thought the writing was very good. The dialogue may not be to everyone’s tastes since it uses a lot of deliberately archaic and formal-sounding language but I thought it felt very appropriate to the setting. The world-building manages to suggest a lot of depth and a long history without getting bogged down in too much exposition, where it makes sense there is some exposition as other characters explain things to Maia he doesn’t know but other elements that he would already be familiar with, such as the Empire’s religion can be picked up from the brief mentions of them. Sometimes the plethora of titles and foreign terms and the large number of named characters can start to seem a little bit overwhelming but for the most part I didn’t find it too confusing.

Overall, I’d say this was an Epic Fantasy novel that in many ways wasn’t particularly epic but that didn’t stop it being compelling. I don’t know if the book will be to everyone’s tastes but I found it very enjoyable. As far as I know there isn’t a sequel planned, but I’d happily read one if it was written.

Rating : 8 /10


“Sailor to a Siren” by Zoë Sumra

sailor to a siren

It is apparent from just the first couple of chapters that “Sailor to a Siren” combines an intriguing, and relatively unusual, mix of genres. The first chapter opens in the middle of a heist with member of one gang (including two of the novel’s protagonists) stealing a drug shipment owned by a rival gang. That this isn’t a mundane crime novel is soon obvious since the rival gang members are aliens who look a bit like giant birds and they have a human woman helping them guard the shipment who can do what the characters describe as magic.

The setting feels like a classic space opera setting with humanity now dispersed across half of a galaxy dominated by two superpowers that seem to be in the middle of a lengthy Cold War. The planet most of the book is set on is largely populated by the bird-like aliens but it’s also home to a large community of humans as well as various other assorted aliens. The Spellweavers add a touch of what feels like urban fantasy into the setting, although there is some brief exposition about how the magic they do has a complex scientific explanation.

Traditionally Space Opera stories have taken place on an epic scale but despite the setting this doesn’t feel much like a traditional Space Opera plot. The story focuses on the aftermath of the heist that takes place in the first chapter, as two brothers Connor and Logan try to find a way to sell what they’ve stolen while surviving the rival gang’s retaliation and having to navigate the complicated politics of the planet’s underworld. From the very first chapter onwards they have a feeling that they’ve stumbled into something more dangerous than they expected, since no ordinary drugs shipment should have been guarded by an expensive Spellweaver. They soon find they’re in more trouble than they anticipated but even in desperate circumstances Connor always keeps looking for a way to turn the situation to his advantage. A complication is provided by the third of the book’s main characters, an old flame of Logan’s named Eloise who is part of a group of Spellweavers hired to crack down on the planet’s trade in illegal drugs.

There is a lot of plot packed into a relatively short book. This is set in a brutal world where life is cheap and everyone from the gangs to the police have their own agenda and nobody other than family can be fully trusted (although sometimes loyalty can be found in surprising places). The story gets increasingly complex as it goes along before the various factions all converge together in a final confrontation which I thought was the highlight of the book – a clash between multiple different groups where none of them are entirely in control of the situation. The setting is very claustrophobic, the stakes are high and it remains tense throughout. There are plenty of double-crosses and most characters have some hidden motivations which kept the plot unpredictable.

Due to the nature of the plot we only get glimpses of the wider setting but the book does a good job of suggesting a long history and there is plenty of material for other books in the setting to explore – the long-running conflict between the two rival guilds of Spellweavers seems particularly intriguing.

I thought the characterisation was good. I wouldn’t say most of the characters are likable – Connor and Logan are hardened criminals who loyalty to each other is probably one of their few redeeming features – but they are interesting and compelling characters. There may be a lot of action in the book but in between the three main characters do get some effective character development, and it’s also interesting to see the contrast between how they are perceived by other characters and how they perceive themselves when we see things from their perspective.

Overall, I thought this was a compelling mixture of gangland thriller, space opera and urban fantasy and I look forward to reading more books in the same setting.

Rating : 8 / 10