The Goblin Emperor

A friend once told me that he had improved his life by deciding that he would never again read a book that started with a map. I have a similar philosophy about books that start with a list of characters. If there are going to be so many people with such complicated names that I won’t be able to keep up with all them without a family tree, I am not going to have the bandwidth to enjoy the story.

And then there’s the common issue with fantasy books that Justin McElroy so neatly summarized in this tweet:

Exactly! Just tell me who has the sword and get on with it! I will never remember which mountain range the trolls originally came from! By these measures, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison should absolutely not have worked for me. It starts with a glossary and a pronunciation guide and a chapter that reads like a description of elven culture from a Lonely Planet guide. Ten pages in I was deeply skeptical. But once I got swept up into the story I was so invested that I stayed up until 2:00 AM on a Tuesday because I was so desperate to find out what to this teenage half-goblin/half-emperor I had gotten so attached to.

Maia is the youngest son of the emperor of a kingdom of elves, but after his goblin mother dies he is exiled to the far edge of the empire and largely forgotten about. Until his father and older brothers are all killed in a airship crash. Overnight Maia becomes emperor and is thrust into the intrigue of a royal court he had never been allowed to even visit. He must master everything from dinner with his advisors to foreign relations to infrastructure development, all while trying to figure out who he can trust and who might take the opportunity to overthrow a teenage ruler with no allies. But Maia is smart and kind and determined to do things differently than his father. He never really wanted to be emperor, but once he gets there he is determined to do the best job he can, and I found myself very invested in his success and well-being.

If you are reader of a certain age, chances are you grew up spending a lot of time in used bookstores, unearthing weird old dusty paperback fantasy novels that you could buy for 25 cents. The Goblin Emperor reminds me of those books in so many ways–it has the timeless feel of a classic. But it’s also a book written by a woman in the last decade, which gives it a refreshingly modern twist. Maia would never talk about “social justice,” but he is a mixed-race ruler who doesn’t understand why he should be making decisions that benefit rich nobility rather than his poorest subjects. As a modern-day reader, classic sci-fi and fantasy sometimes has to be read through gritted teeth as it casually drops weird racist and sexist ideas. It was a pleasure to read a classic fantasy story that reflected ideas of equality and justice.

The Goblin Emperor came out in 2014, but I’m glad I came across it now, because in June a sequel is being released and I will be first on the list for it.

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review: Coming-of-age court intrigue

You might also like: We’ve talked about the Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner so many times that I almost hate to mention it again, but those books are wonderful and feature the same sort of twisty negotiations and constantly shifting alliances. But I would also recommend the television series The Great on Hulu, which tells the story of Catherine the Great’s introduction to the Russian court in a quite darkly comedic way.

Mumbo Jumbo

By Ishmael Reed

This book is something else! I picked it up on the basis of a short summary: during the Jazz age, a new dance takes people over uncontrollably, sweeping through the country. And yeah, I guess that’s sort of the basic structure that holds everything else together, but it is only the top gloss of a truly sprawling narrative.

In sheer scope of characters and plot lines, Mumbo Jumbo reminded me of Infinite Jest (though much shorter, only 217 pages), and after the most rudimentary of research (Wikipedia), I think it may exemplify postmodernism. Wikipedia defines postmodern literature as a form of literature that is characterized by the use of metafiction, unreliable narration, self-reflexivity, intertextuality, and which often thematizes both historical and political issues. Mumbo Jumbo checks off every last one of those, and truly deserves to be taught alongside Pynchon, Wallace, and the rest. I only wish I’d been able to participate in a class or even a book club to go through this novel in detail!   

Reed weaves so many allusions to historical, political, and cultural events throughout the plot (and even the occasional off-hand comment) that I’m sure I missed at least half of them. The ones that I caught, at least enough to follow up on with more research (Wikipedia again) were fascinating! For example, one of the plotlines revolves around Warren Harding’s run for president and people’s concern over his Black ancestry, which was a new one for me! I looked it up and it appears to have been a rumor spread by his unhappy father-in-law (debunked by DNA testing in 2015). On the other hand, every new fact about Warren Harding I read was completely bonkers, so I highly recommend reading both his and his wife Florence Harding’s Wikipedia pages.

Other plotlines include three Harlem mystics, devotees of different beliefs, in an amicable competition for believers (at least one of whom is possibly classic hotep?); art heists of European and US museums to return artifacts to their original countries; newspapers being used to send secret messages and either foment or quell various rebellions; a Haitian routing of a US invasion; among others. Each plot has a good half dozen characters with occasional overlap, all creating an extremely complicated but entertaining web.

I worry that I’m making this sound like slog, but while it wasn’t a quick read, the whole novel is also both very funny and emotionally engrossing. I really cared about the protagonists and their endeavors, and dreaded the machinations of the antagonists. The humor is both absurd and bitingly satiric, and the laser sharp cultural criticism still extremely resonant today.

The Last Ghost Series

By M Dressler

I See You So Close

Book cover for I See You So Close

I read a teaser that this was a small town murder mystery but with a twist: the investigating protagonist is a ghost disguised as a human! I was immediately hooked, wondering how does a ghost disguise themselves as a human?! It wasn’t until I had it in my hands that I realized it’s a sequel (I’ve done this before). I decided that it looked like it was enough of a reset in plotting that I could start with it, and the author does a fairly skillful job of getting any new readers up to speed, I thought.

Our protagonist ghost, Emma Rose, is traveling west to outrun ghost hunters, and it quickly established that this is a world in which everyone is aware of the existence of ghosts, but enough of the living find them troubling that ghost hunters are sent to “blast” them much as one would bring in an exterminator. So, I’m sympathetic to our protagonist’s wariness around humans, but her trigger finger to just kill them before they try anything makes me think the ghost hunters are probably all for the best.

Emma Rose ends up in a small town so wholesome and welcoming it immediately sent up a whole bushel of red flags for me, though it takes her a bit longer to realize that there is a dark secret lurking in its gold rush-era history. It is a really interesting look at what life and existence means, whether in current or after-life, and whether a “live and let live” philosophy should be extended to those not actually currently living. For me, the characters seemed a little flat, not stereotypes exactly, more just simplified, and the plot somewhat fussy and over complicated. Additionally, I found the language a bit stilted, and even wondered whether it was the fault of a weak translation, but not only does that not seem to be the case, the various cover blurbs raved about the poetics of the language.

The Last to See Me

HOWEVER, I went back to read the first novel, and it is so much better! It is much more introspective, focusing on the parallel plots of Emma Rose in life leading to her death, and her afterlife as she works through what this existence means, both to her and others. It all takes place in the same small coastal town in which she lived and died, with a much smaller cast of characters, so the book can really delve into the themes of life, freedom, and justice in really powerful ways. Both novels are told in first person by Emma Rose, who is complicated enough to be not necessarily likeable, which gives some really nice philosophical depth to this first book. I think this same narration may have contributed to some of the flatness of the other characters in the sequel, since they are only really seen through Emma Rose’s eyes and thoughts.


Between reading these two books out of order, my twitter feed was full of  SF/F twitter justifiably furious at a reviewer for panning a sequel for not standing alone, leading to this extremely thorough and entertaining takedown. For many reasons, I did not commit nearly her level of insult (I’m writing on my personal blog with a small audience, these are not epic fantasy novels, etc.), but even in this case, it really brought home to me what a disservice I’d done to both books. I think the second book isn’t as good as the first, but now I’ll never have a chance to read that second book fresh but with the knowledge of the first behind it, so I can’t ever be sure. I enjoyed the first book much more than the second, but I think I would have liked it even more without the spoilers I picked up from the second.

The House in the Cerulean Sea

The House in the Cerulean Sea Cover Image

Just hours after I finished this book and started recommending it to most everyone I know, Alison at Ask a Manager named it her favorite book of the year, so I feel in very good company telling you to read The House in the Cerulean Sea by TK Klune. It is absolutely charming and, look, everyone likes it!

It’s a very simple set-up–Linus Baker is a caseworker who investigates the orphanages that care for, or possibly detain, children with magical abilities. He has a very specific, prescribed job and lives a very specific, prescribed life when he is given a special assignment to check out a house on a small coastal island. And to check out the man who oversees the children there. I would not say that this is a particularly subtle book, but it is done so well you won’t care at all. Even thought I was pretty sure I knew from the beginning where the story was going to go, I still couldn’t put it down. If you’ve ever been on vacation to the beach, you know that feeling when you first get there and you step out of the car and breathe in the wind and salt and see the water stretching out before you? And sort of feel this big exhale of relief and your shoulders drop and you feel a sense of calm settle over you for a minute? That’s how this book made me feel.

And how gorgeous is that title and cover?

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review: Harry Potter meets . . . Joe vs. the Volcano?

You might also like: The Ten Thousand Doors of January, as well as Sourdough: or, Lois and Her Adventures in the Underground Market: A Novel. This book also shares a lot of DNA with Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series (I reviewed the first one, Every Heart a Doorway, a few years ago), although I think The House in the Cerulean Sea is a bit sweeter. And I’ll take any opportunity to recommend Jo Walton–in this case, Among Us.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

A Deadly Education
Lesson One of The Scholomance
by Naomi Novik
2020

Naomi Novik is awesome so I always perk up when I hear a new book being promoted and this one is a delight. Although also clearly a two parter and the next part isn’t due out until late June. Hmph!

The Scholomance is a magic school that’s more along the lines of The Magicians than of Harry Potter, but also with a strong influence of Battle Royale/Hunger Games although the students are not pitted against each other exactly. The school itself is deadly and dangerous and the students struggle to maintain alliances that might help them survive both the daily (and nightly) dangers, but also prepare for the horrific battle of graduation. This is not a situation of a malicious authoritarian government, which would be bad enough, but the best answer developed so far to get magically inclined kids to survive the hideously dangerous adolescent years where they are most tasty to the monsters that want to eat them. The school is essentially under siege and subject to constant invasions but at least the students aren’t easy pickings like they would be outside of it. The world-building is amazing and complex with fascinating implications.

The main character, Galadriel, known as El, has the additional problem of having an affinity for devastating magic of mass destruction. Friends aren’t really an option when people assume you’re a serial killer just biding time till you can become a mass murder and harder still to learn practical life skills when the school syllabus assumes you’re more interested in slave armies and supervolcanoes.

It’s like Novik asked: how could an already fraught middle-school/high-school of cliques and miserable adolescence be made even worse and then went with it. And it makes the wins all the more triumphant and the friendships all the more satisfying.

This book was the second half of Junior year and it was amazing. Next up: senior year! (aka, The Last Graduate, Lesson Two of The Scholomance, to be published June 29, 2021, in theory book 2 of 2, but this world is so fascinating that I’m already hoping for a book 3 as well.)

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow by Natasha Pulley

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow
by Natasha Pulley
2020

According to Amazon, this is the second book in the series, but I would have put it as the third book, even if it does continue on directly from the events of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street with the same characters. But the author wrote The Bedlam Stacks in between and set it in the same world with references back and forth.

The whole series is really good and this book might even be my favorite but now I need to go back and re-read all of them just to see. One of the things that I really enjoyed even as it ratcheted up the tension so much, was the exploration of the edges of power: how individuals can have immense power, but it is never infinite and there are always going to be points where it ends. In some ways, it also seemed very thematic with the last book I reviewed, Return of the Thief, as there is one protagonist who is doing their best to manipulate events, and you want them to succeed but not only is that not guaranteed, but sometimes you can’t even tell if it’s working or not because some of the long term successes depend on failures. But Pulley make’s this all the more fraught because our primary point of view character, Thaniel, isn’t even sure what Mori’s goal is. I also just love reading the love and devotion that has Thaniel follow along, trying to be supportive even as he’s also struggling to figure out what being supportive would even be. It just gives me so many feels.

Like all the books in the series, there’s a theme of clockwork: of seeing gears interact with on another and only slowly tracing those interactions and putting together all the pieces to figure out what the complete work is intended for. It comes to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion even as the process is fraught and made me realize how much I trusted Pulley as an author to have an excellent plot and how little I trusted her to keep her characters alive and well.

I very much recommend this book, but I’m kind of curious to know if it can be read as a stand-alone. So much of the book is already wading through uncertainty that I’m not sure if not having read the previous two would make it any worse. But in general, I definitely recommend it as a full series.

A Break from Books

I know I am not the only person currently struggling to rip myself away from Twitter and Tiktok, right? I mean, I take a short nap and so many insane things have happened that I can hardly keep up! I have been reading to distract myself from the excessive amount of current events and I have enjoyed a couple of newly released books–Hidden Valley Road is not happy but it is as good as everyone says, and Mexican Gothic was a fun distraction. But I’ve actually been finding a little bit of peace in two other forms of content–a podcast and a video game.

Sentimental Garbage is still reading adjacent, since it’s a podcast about books–specifically about chick lit books. The host Caroline O’Donoghue is a young Irish author with a couple of smart books out already. I really enjoyed her novel Promising Young Women (even if it made me very glad to no longer be in my 20s) and her latest, Scenes of a Graphic Nature, is on my to-read pile, saved for a day when I need cheering up. In the intro to her podcast she says that when her first book came out people asked how she felt about it being considered “chick lit,” and her response was: why would she care! The best people love chick lit! So each episode of the podcast is Caroline and another writer or co-host discussing a book they have loved. I was hooked the minute I realized that the first episode was about The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets–I book I absolutely adore (and even wrote about back in 2011) but that no one ever seems to talk about. The book selection can vary and include slightly more “serious” things (one episode deals with Less, another with Americanah) but they’ve discussed some of my absolute favorite “women’s” books, including Unsticky, more than one Marian Keyes books, Bridget Jones’ Diary, etc. I love how their discussions swing back and forth between squeeing at good love stories and analyzing how an author has ended up classified as “chick lit” and how that affects how we read the book. I’ve been listening to these on some long drives I’ve had to do lately, and it’s very cheering to feel like I’ve got friends riding along with me, laughing about books we all love.

The second thing that ha been bringing me a great deal of joy lately is a little video game called Florence. It’s been out a for couple of years, but it’s not a surprise that I hadn’t encountered it until lately because I am extremely not a game person. I play Candy Crush and a Doctor Who version of 2048 and that is basically the only “gaming” you could say that I’ve done in decades. I so wish I could remember where I heard about Florence and what exactly it was that made me spend $3.99 on an app–I’m assuming it was on Twitter, but it is now lost in the vast scroll. Whatever convinced me, I am happy it did. Florence is just a short game, maybe an hour, and there isn’t really any skill involved–what you do as a player doesn’t affect the path of the story. So maybe it’s better described as an online graphic novel? At any rate, Florence is a story about a young girl meeting someone and falling in love for the first time, and it has just the most charming graphics and gorgeous music. There are little activities you complete as the game goes along–you get to paint some little pictures, put puzzle pieces together that represent conversations, move belongings around a charming little apartment, and things like that. It’s very calming and meditative, and I’ve been using it almost as a worry stone on my phone. I am generally so dismissive of video games because they are so Not My Thing, but I am open to any suggestions of more sweet little stories like this!

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

The Flatshare
by Beth O'Leary
2019

This is sweet and adorable romcom that had me giggling to myself in the living room and then managed to ambush me with some actual serious issues of trauma recovery without ever losing the quirky fun set-up.

The story is about Tiffy, who needs to get a new place to live on very short notice and on a very tight budget, and Leon, who needs to get some extra income and has a one-bedroom flat but works nights at a hospice. The deal is that they will time-share the flat so that Leon sleeps there during the day while Tiffy works, and Tiffy sleeps there during the night while Leon works. Leon has a girlfriend who is more than happy to take up any of his available free time so that Leon and Tiffy never have to meet… That’s the premise.

It reminds me of Attachments by Rainbow Rowell and is very cute and all the characters are quirky and there’s a close friend group on Tiffy’s side and a close family group on Leon’s side, so they each have their own support structures but are also dealing with their own issues outside of their growing relationship with each other. 

It switches perspective between Tiffy and Leon, and then is also divided into month segments from February to October. My one real warning for this book is to make sure you have enough time to read October all in one go. I attempted to put the book down and get a night’s sleep in the middle of October and it was an anxiety-ridden night’s sleep. 

As Anna pointed out when I was telling her about it, this book is the opposite of a tragedy. The best tragedies all have a moment where everything seems to be working out, where everything could go well, and it gets your hopes up, and then it all comes crashing down and the fall is all the worse for the hope. Well, this is the reverse of that: there is a horrifying terrible moment where everything has the chance to fall apart and go horribly wrong. And it doesn’t. It all works out, but that one moment is just terrifying and the release of tension makes the end so much sweeter. 

Reading Through the Pandemic

So, it’s been a while. 2020, huh? I may have aged 20 years since February. Everyone hanging in there?

While I have definitely spent my share of this pandemic doom-scrolling, playing a truly astounding amount of Thirteen, and watching every episode of the Great British Baking Show again, I have actually read a fair amount. My book list from the last five months is an odd mix of romance, non-fiction, and literary best sellers as I keep trying different kind of books, looking for the perfect thing to help me either forget the world or understand what is going on around me. I don’t know that I have yet to find a book that genuinely helped on either front, but I did read some smart, touching, fun things that kept me off Twitter. It’s all I’ve got today, but I’m going to offer it to you: some books that might take you away from the current hellscape for a few minutes.

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
A while back I read Reservoir 13, a novel about how the disappearance of a young girl affects the residents of a small town. It got rave reviews, but I found it deeply unsatisfying. This book is everything I had hoped Reservoir 13 would be. I also really enjoyed a peek inside life in a far-flung Russian province, including in its indigenous communities.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
People absolutely adore Morgenstern’s first book, The Night Circus, but I thought it was just pleasant enough and Anna was even less impressed. But it’s a pandemic, I’ve got nothing but time, so I thought I as might as well tackle her second one. It’s another long, sprawling magical realism story with lots of characters and multiple time frames, but I was much more caught up in the characters and the magical world she created this time around.

The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande
I made so much fun of Anna for reading this at the beach a few years ago, but she was totally right! This is a smart, readable book that provides a sense of hope that there are concrete things we can do to improve the world.

Open Book by Jessica Simpson
I know! The Jessica Simpson book! It is actually very good!

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
Massey wrote a series of mystery novels about a Japanese-American woman solving crimes in modern-day Tokyo, which I liked a lot, but this book kicked of an even more interesting new series about a female lawyer working in 1920s Bombay. The story was interesting, but I was most impressed with the level of research that Massey must have done, which allowed her to create this world that felt so real, even while being so far from anything I’m familiar with.

Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch
Have you been wanting to read a linguist discuss how people on the Internet communicate? You want to, whether you know it or not. This can get a little dense at times, but McCulloch is funny and the phenomena she describes will be familiar to anyone who has spent significant time on line over the last 25 years. Having an expert take a specific Internet language thing (a meme, an acronym, ellipses) and then explain exactly what purpose it serves actually gave me a lot of respect for how we create the forms of communications we need in real time every day.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
This last one isn’t cheerful, I’ll warn you, but it was compelling. I think I found this book in a round-up of WWII stories, but it actually has an interesting twist. The story follows two timelines–a female spy in France during the first World War, and then a young American girl in Europe in the years immediately following the end of the second war. Anyone who reads a lot of historical fiction ends up reading a lot of WWII stories, and that’s all fine, but they often focus exclusively on the war years and little before or after. I liked how Quinn’s story showed how close and connected the wars, and individuals’ experiences of them, were and how Europe had begun to rebuild in the late 1940s.