Note: It’s not a review because it’s my idiosyncratic response to a book in a very specific situation. It’s got some of the things you’d expect in a review in it (even on the erg it’s impossible to miss how well Addison handles her protag’s first encounter with the idea of same sex relationships) but most of you probably don’t rate books on how well they work for listening during rowing.

You know about the New Book Threshold? That’s the one where you’ve been reading books of a given kind that aren’t too demanding – comfort rereads, or books within a series, or fluffy books that won’t leave you any different when you’re done except that you’ve been entertained a little while longer – and then it’s a bit hard to start something new, especially when it’s long, dense, or demanding of attention or emotion. Sometimes it’s even harder when the new book is somethign you expect to love; I’m not quite sure why.

It turns out that the New Book Threshold is even steeper for erg books, since what you mostly want there is distraction and motivation, and any required thinking needs to be snuck in there.

So it was a bit hard to step out of the comfortable rut I’d been in of the Phryne Fisher series (which are good-ish, but I’m halfway through the 20 or so books and not seeing any growth in Phryne as a character) and plunge into Katherine Addison’s Goblin Emperor. It’s been well worth it; the most important thing about erg books is that they need to be immersive enough to add some motivation for stepping into that torture device. This one definitely works for that, tothe point where I’ve been (almost) sorry on my off days that I don’t get to listen.

It is a bit introspective for an erg book; a lot of the action is in Maia’s head, so it definitely wouldn’t work if I didn’t have good enough headphones to be able to catch every word. Even so, I’ve also read the Kindle version (up to the point I’ve gotten to in audio) to savor the details. A downside for listening is all the names – I understand why they’re so long and complicated, because she’s done a lot of work on the language design and the names all have meanings, but it does make it a little harder to follow the audio version. There are also a lot of small linguistic points to catch, that matter to the plot – “he used ‘we’ in the plural sense, rather than formally.” On the other hand, the plot is not too convoluted for erg listening; I’m not sure if this is intended as YA but unlike Addison’s work published as Sarah Monette, it would work well for a YA reader. THe central theme is Maia’s growing into himself and into his role as emperor; in that respect it reminds me of a few of Sherwood Smith’s works like Crown Duel in which the young protagonist has to learn to understand nuance and what politics are for instead of rebelling blindly.

Not that Maia ever rebels much. He’s got the moral sense and earnestness of Fanny Price, if not quite her diffidence (thankfully) despite a childhood of neglect and abuse. He’s a throwback to the nineteenth-century books I love, in that he is always trying to be better, and he has a strong sense of what that means and of what he owes to himself, to the nation he rules, and to the mother who gave him what love he had. He’s no saint; it’s not that he doesn’t have cruel or vindictive urges, but that he surpresses their expression. Sort of like most of us do (I hope).

Addison also does an impressive job handling prejudice, ont he bases of race, sex and sexual preference. They have it. It’s built into the society and into some people’s attitudes. Other people are fighting various forms of it, and many just haven’t really thought much about it, or having only thought about what affects them personally. The worldbuilding is intricate and comprehensive, but there’s enough of us in Addison’s elves and goblins to make them instantly recognizable as human.

I’d like to read another story in the world, but possibly not one centered around Maia; he’s come into his own enough by the end (I admit it, I peeked ahead) that it feels like his major story arc is over. But there’s plenty of room for a novel around Idra or Ceredin or others.