Achaean Book Club March/April: The Goblin Emperor

edited March 2018 in The Universal Membrane
Welcome to the second month of the Achaean Book Club! We got some nice thoughts towards the end of the last thread, though some people seemed to hold off discussing because a) no time to finish book or b) finished early and didn't want to spoil. I'm going to change both the spoiler rules and duration of this one to maybe help with that. It'll also let us line up dates a bit better.

The book for this month is The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. As usual, Goodreads has a variety of places to buy it from in both physical and ebook format.

Thread Rules:

  • Book club #2 will run from March 15 to April 30th.
  • Discuss as much as you want a soon as you want, but use spoiler tags for anything that contains, well, spoilers! If spoilers are specific to a chapter/location in the book, note that outside the spoiler itself.
  • While this thread is active, we'll be voting on next month's book. Feel free to discuss that, too. The books this time are mostly the same as last time + 1 to replace the winner and +1 to replace To the Lighthouse because I already decided to read that one on my own and it wasn't getting a lot of votes.

Starting questions for discussion (but feel free to discuss whatever comes to mind, or post quotes you like, or ask questions if you're lost).

  • The book was released at a time where Fantasy book had been getting increasingly darker in themes (grimdark even). Some have hailed this book as an  'anti-grimdark' novel of sorts. Do you agree with that? What makes the book dark, and what makes it light-hearted?
  • What's the line between naive and good-hearted? Which side does Maia fall on? How does it compare to the people around him?
  • How does the book portray the nature of power, and how does Maia contrast in his view of it with others around him?
  • One of the major themes of the book is exploring various sorts of relationships. Which ones are important to Maia, and what effect do they have on his life? How many of these relationships are one-sided?
  • What are the basic themes of the book you're picking up on, and how do you feel about them?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick

It was January 2021, and Rick Deckard had a license to kill.
Somewhere among the hordes of humans out there, lurked several rogue androids. Deckard's assignment--find them and then..."retire" them. Trouble was, the androids all looked exactly like humans, and they didn't want to be found!

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now...
The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle
She was magical, beautiful beyond belief -- and completely alone...

The unicorn had lived since before memory in a forest where death could touch nothing. Maidens who caught a glimpse of her glory were blessed by enchantment they would never forget. But outside her wondrous realm, dark whispers and rumours carried a message she could not ignore: "Unicorns are gone from the world."

Aided by a bumbling magician and an indomitable spinster, she set out to learn the truth. but she feared even her immortal wisdom meant nothing in a world where a mad king's curse and terror incarnate lived only to stalk the last unicorn to her doom...

The Left Hand of Darkness
, Ursula K. Le Guin
A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants can choose -and change - their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter's inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters.

Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

As a child, Kathy – now thirty-one years old – lived at Hailsham, a private school in the scenic English countryside where the children were sheltered from the outside world, brought up to believe that they were special and that their well-being was crucial not only for themselves but for the society they would eventually enter. Kathy had long ago put this idyllic past behind her, but when two of her Hailsham friends come back into her life, she stops resisting the pull of memory.

And so, as her friendship with Ruth is rekindled, and as the feelings that long ago fueled her adolescent crush on Tommy begin to deepen into love, Kathy recalls their years at Hailsham. She describes happy scenes of boys and girls growing up together, unperturbed–even comforted–by their isolation. But she describes other scenes as well: of discord and misunderstanding that hint at a dark secret behind Hailsham’s nurturing facade. With the dawning clarity of hindsight, the three friends are compelled to face the truth about their childhood–and about their lives now.

A tale of deceptive simplicity, Never Let Me Go slowly reveals an extraordinary emotional depth and resonance–and takes its place among Kazuo Ishiguro’s finest work.

Parable of the Sower
, Octavia E. Butler

In 2025, with the world descending into madness and anarchy, one woman begins a fateful journey toward a better future

Lauren Olamina and her family live in one of the only safe neighborhoods remaining on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Behind the walls of their defended enclave, Lauren’s father, a preacher, and a handful of other citizens try to salvage what remains of a culture that has been destroyed by drugs, disease, war, and chronic water shortages. While her father tries to lead people on the righteous path, Lauren struggles with hyperempathy, a condition that makes her extraordinarily sensitive to the pain of others.

When fire destroys their compound, Lauren’s family is killed and she is forced out into a world that is fraught with danger. With a handful of other refugees, Lauren must make her way north to safety, along the way conceiving a revolutionary idea that may mean salvation for all mankind.

A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
Ged, the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, was called Sparrowhawk in his reckless youth.

Hungry for power and knowledge, Sparrowhawk tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death's threshold to restore the balance.


  • I've read the first four chapters; has anyone else started? :D (I really like the book so far.)

    Also, do we get a reading for this one??? Please please please @Stheno <3
  • edited March 2018
    Yup! I'm a third of the way in, chapter 14 or 15 or something. I'm liking it a lot so far, though I imagine the amount of names will get confusing for some people. Would really recommend reading this on an e-reader or app of some sort that lets you quickly search names you forget.

    Alternatively someone can make a character guide.
  • edited March 2018
    Oh! Actually there's a character/location guide at the back of the book for anyone that gets lost! (sorry audiobook readers)
  • Oh bother! I have Audible so I decided to go for the audiobook. I already noticed that even the words got much harder to recognize (I read the first four chapters in a sample online), such as the word for his bodyguards. Maybe I can find the list of characters online.
  • @Cailin, sure! I enjoyed our first reading, but I lost my voice and enthusiasm to illness for a couple weeks. I'll try for a reading this weekend. We can start a third of the way in, since you've all started reading.

    Reaching down with a massive hand, Sartan lifts your head and draws a taloned finger across your throat, the wound closing as He does so.

  • I was talking to @Jozlyn who has no keyboard or something cause she's on her phone usually, and we considered having voice discussions of the book, too.

    We can do that instead of or in addition to the readings, tentatively either dividing the book in thirds or one big discussion at the end.
  • finished book. may have been poorly digested, since it was maybe 5 hours of reading in 1 1/2 days.

    re: questions asked at the top. this is limited spoilers, but won't cover anything that isn't clear within the first half:

    [spoiler]I didn't find the book dark at all, but I'm also not sure of the context with the darker themes/grimdark. Didn't seem any darker than, say, LOTR, and certainly far less so than the last fantasy books I read. It's not as if death does not occur, but there were none that I felt anything in particular towards as a reader. In general, this is a story of civil administration in a relatively stable/strong empire, so just about everything Edrehasivar hears about is quite sanitized.

    I wouldn't say there is a line between naivete and good-heartedness, because I don't think those are opposite ends of the same spectrum. As a result of his upbringing in Edonomee, he does not know the people and habits of the court, but he's very well-schooled in self-control due to Setheris' tutelage. Either way, I would say that Maia tries to be good-hearted in general and rather than being naive, he manages to maintain a child-like curiosity towards ideas that others eschew because of the novelty of his situation. I might actually say that certain other characters are more good-hearted than Maia, because they are in positions with greater influence in spite of the title of Emperor. Other than that, the split is generally between people who see a greater picture and want to better a group larger than themselves or those who are more self-interested. In that sense, Maia leans well towards the former.[/spoiler]
    now, things that contain more spoilery thoughts:

    [spoiler]There were times when I found the characterization a little bizarre, perhaps because some of the past was not so clear to me. Maia seems very learned and well-read for someone from the countryside (see: knowledge of history and ability to discuss/be interested in Clockwork Guild engineering plans). Because of this, I thought that Setheris would gain more importance or Maia would learn to appreciate his tutelage beyond inner thoughts like "this is what Setheris would say," but that was not the case. In spite of this, Maia didn't seem to have any notable outdoors skills either (not that it would have been relevant to the story), based on a jab on not hunting that was made early on.

    I enjoyed the overall result of the story, but I did hope for a little more out of the intrigue. Maybe I'm just a paranoid reader, but I thought it was obvious that a coup attempt or assassination plot would occur, even outside of the Hindenburg event that opens the story, due to the general dissatisfaction over Edrehasivar's differences from Varenechibel. While I didn't find the pacing slow and the book wasn't too long, it was a bit more of a "create the setting" story than "something unusual happened." Nothing wrong with that.

    I think Maia's statement to Idra when asked whether he was glad for Shevean's exile just about sums up the overall feeling I had towards Maia's growth at the end of the story. Being the Emperor is not a time for the type of base happiness that others may feel, but as the courtiers became accustomed to his consistently well-measured personality and the Avar grew to like Maia, he managed to secure relief. There was no great war to win against a blatant enemy, but he pushed his first major initiative through without subterfuge or force, and that bodes well (or as close as you get to it) for the rest of his administration as Edrehasivar the Bridge Builder.

    Hmm, questions...these may not be very deep, just random things that come to mind.

    How well do you think the main character separates his personal feelings as Maia from his duty as Edrehasivar?

    Is Csevet a saint or what? (not a serious question)

    Did you find the development of Maia's "relationships" with Nedao Vechin and Csethiro Ceredin meaningful?

    Somewhat related to the above, did you find that gender roles and attitudes towards homosexuality added depth to the world or simply was for the sake of a setting?

    Do spoiler tags make me capitalize correctly?[/spoiler]
    And as he slept he dreamed a dream, and this was his dream.
  • This is yet another book I've read already, so I skimmed it over quick and I'm going to post about it now before I forget.
    Kiet said:
    • The book was released at a time where Fantasy book had been getting increasingly darker in themes (grimdark even). Some have hailed this book as an  'anti-grimdark' novel of sorts. Do you agree with that? What makes the book dark, and what makes it light-hearted?

    I'm not sure that I'd go so far as to call this book 'anti-grimdark'. The events and the world are pretty dark, honestly. Assassinations, forced marriages, abusive relationships, lack of rights for women, etc. It's really only saved from being dark because the protagonist is so hopelessly nice to people. 

    He's frustratingly nice, honestly, because that's all he does. He's nice to people and everything works out. He doesn't have to learn anything. He doesn't have to actually suffer from his mistakes, and those mistakes often end up benefiting him. He doesn't have to work at succeeding. He just coasts through the story being nice and everything just falls into place for him.

    • Csevet is loyal and trustworthy, and so competent he makes the shift from "messenger" to "secretary who is also the first advisor to the emperor" without missing a step. And Maia has to do nothing to win his allegiance. Csevet just shows up and starts solving problems.

    • Chavar and Shevean's plot to remove him backfires on them and removes two of Maia's problems for him. Chavar is set up as this major obstacle and hindrance, and then he just shoots himself in the foot and fades away without Maia needing to take any action at all.

    • The lady he gets engaged to(Csethiro?) is awesome and loyal and trustworthy and actually likes him, and Maia chooses her by saying "Csevet, tell me who I should marry", and then Csevet tells him how to present her to the Council so that she gets chosen. 

    • The pretty singer who was using her looks to manipulate him just wants his support in building an awesome clockwork bridge that would be a huge benefit for almost everybody, which means that he doesn't have any problems about being pressured into a bad idea and he can just roll with it.

    • He doesn't even come to the decision that he needs some personal time or he'll go crazy. His grandfather says that and he just goes along with it. 
    He doesn't do anything. He doesn't  grow as a character. He's happier at the end, but it's because he's realized that he doesn't have to change anything because everything just works out for him. Not that he can make things work out for him, but that they just will.

    This passivity results in an extremely unsatisfying story and means that the book has to be carried entirely by the setting, which is unfortunate because the setting isn't interesting enough to carry an entire book. 
  • [spoiler]I feel like the setting could have been good enough to carry a real story. For instance, I thought the Avar, this great goblin king who never visited other places, would either be assassinated or declare a claim or something. But he was basically jovial grandpa. Or the bridge could have become the source of political troubles if it did fail or they were sabotaged. Still, it's not so bad a story to see the PC, inoffensive king just win, even if it's by the many circumstances that needed to fall into place. Maybe I'm a bit zen about it, but that's just what the story is, and that's not so bad.[/spoiler]
    And as he slept he dreamed a dream, and this was his dream.
  • I really liked the book. The setting reminded me of The Last Airbender (or was it Legend of Korra?) with its sort of steampunk technology in a fantasy setting. And I just reeeeeeally liked the expressive ears!

    I didn't find the book dark, for sure. Except for one dark anecdote, which I hated, the book was not dark even though it had some serious themes. Maia being nice was not the only light thing about it. It was maybe... I mean it's hard to pin such a subjective thing down, but... It's no darker than Chronicles of Narnia, and certainly not as dark as Harry Potter.

    What makes a book "dark", and what makes it "light"?

    It is fine that Maia is a good guy. Main characters don't have to always be terribly flawed. A protagonist, I think, should either be good, or learn to be good, and that makes a good story. Either way, it makes for a good role model. People think good characters are boring, I suppose, but I don't find Maia boring.

    His lack of choice was in some places odd, but on the other hand that was one of the major themes of the book. He was in one sense all-powerful ("Thou art emperor") but in other ways completely not in control, as he could not even choose to not get married. 

    I liked the exploration of relationships. It broke my heart when Cala said, "We cannot be your friend," and frustrated me every time it was repeated. But that made it so very satisfying when finally the matter was resolved.

  • edited March 2018
    I got sidetracked by fortnite/sea of thieves, but I finished! Overall, I liked the book quite a bit, though not as much as Ancillary Justice. Most of the substance of the book was in the latter half, and if it had continued like the first half I'd probably rate it a solid 3/5, though by the end I found I ended up liking it more than the first half made me expect.

    I'd say the dark thing has to be done in comparison to other books being released at the time. When you compare this to Game of Thrones, it's quite a bit lighter in the sense that there's no graphic violence or gratuitous sex scenes or the like. That said, like people said, assassination and such are still present, and it really is Maia that keeps it 'light', but it's also the fact that things work out in the end.

    I wouldn't say that Maia doesn't grow as a character at all, though. At its heart, this is a coming of age story, and Maia goes from a shy, easily bullied victim of abuse to a confident Emperor that struggles with his role but has found a way to handle it.

    Near the beginning of the book he literally just let everyone walk all over him, but starting with the first time he scolds someone (I forget exactly who came first, but I found it notable at the time). The very fact that he called up Idra instead of just abdicating during the plot was a big show of this. Even though, ultimately, he was saved because Idra didn't want it, it was directly because he thought to push back at the plotters, even if it seemed pointless.

    The Maia at the beginning of the story would've never gotten the bridge built, largely because he'd not even have won the respect of the Corazhas that ended up liking him, but also because he'd never have been brave enough to so forcefully tell them to listen to the petition.

    If you'll notice, almost all the characters that end up liking him (other than the angelic Csevet) end up doing so in the end because he showed he grew a spine. The two Corazhas (sorry, I dont remember anyone's name after reading lmao) that ended up siding with him, Csethiro herself (who thought him not worth her attention until he pointed out that he knew that the singer would want something from him, and that he knew that Csethiro expected nothing from him).

    It's easy to say he 'did nothing', but that's ignoring that he managed to earn respect as a half-goblin 18 year old from people who weren't initially eager for it. That they do a lot of the work, in the end, is probably a commentary on being an emperor itself. Earning loyalty and respect, having people that would even bother to support him is a big achievement when you consider how he started out. Near the end, he's even diffusing arguments by himself (when he sends the one captain to search the palace when he's arguing).

    Beyond that, the things he does accomplish he accomplishes through subtler means. The bomb plotter says as much--he's nothing like his father, he's pushing for a bridge that would have never gotten built before, he visited the peasant victims, he had a woman as nohecharei. Maia is aggressively nice, and if the novel ultimately is against the usual grimdark fantasy it's mostly in the sense that being nice, being empathic, is seen as an actual good trait that is rewarded. We're surrounded by anti-heroes, or the rough and gruff heroes, and Maia is unlike them, which makes the story unique.

    In the end it's simply a story about a guy who is deeply nice despite a world that conspires against him, and that's sweet! It's a story whose theme is ultimately that being a good person is admirable more than being a cunning schemer or being typically heroic and strong or having force of personality for its own sake (though he does have force of personality in his own way, imo). There's such a big focus on his relationships, on him missing his mother, on the relief that his grandfather's presence brings, on his obsession with having some sort of 'friend', because who'd want to have none? The intrigue and assassionations are not really the point of the story, but simply vehicles with which he's tested and grows, imo.

    Also, I have to say Csethiro is amazing.

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