(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing as many of the 2015 Hugo nominees as I can before the July 31 deadline, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)
This book surprised the heck out of me. I checked it out from the library rather skeptical as to whether or not I would like it. "Court intrigue," as I've heard it described, is not really my thing. However, once I started reading the very first chapter, where this hapless eighteen-year-old kid is woken out of a sound sleep with the news that his estranged father and brothers have died in an airship crash, and he is now Emperor...
...well, the author sucked me right in, and we're off to the races.
I adore this book. As well as "court intrigue," I've heard it described as "mannerpunk" and "competence porn," and as much as I would like to get away from the urge to punkify/pornify everything, all three descriptions have their merits. This book succeeds because the characterization is just fantastic: we spend the entire book in a tight third-person focus on that eighteen-year-old kid, Maia Drazhar, and his struggles to succeed in this shark-infested pool he has been suddenly thrown into. He was never raised to be Emperor; indeed, his father banished Maia after his mother's death ten years before, and has paid not a whit of attention to him since. Plus Maia's guardian is an abusive SOB who later gets his comeuppance, yessss, Preciousssss. (Although not in the way you would think, as Maia is not a violent or vengeful person.)
I've heard people complaining that nothing happens in this book, and I can only shake my head and wonder what they were actually reading. I guess it's because most of the action here is interior and based on characterization, rather than exterior and based on plot. What I mean by this is that Maia doesn't become a bloodthirsty Emperor waging wars, participating in swordfights, and proclaiming "Off with their heads!"; he works to understand the ugly backstabbing court he has been thrown into, and in the process both grows as a person (becoming assertive and confrontational where necessary, instead of the overwhelmed, passive kid he started out being) and learns how to manipulate the culture of the court to his benefit. This is a theme throughout the entire book, and it is a delight to follow.
Neither Maia or any of the characters are human. Maia is half goblin/half elf, and the other characters are either-or. I'd have to read the book again to be certain, but I don't think there is a human to be found. The characters have various nonhuman eye/skin colors--Maia himself is slate-grey, with light grey eyes, and his grandfather is "goblin-black," with "lurid orange" eyes. Also, everybody has movable ears, rather like a German Shepherd, as far as I can tell. Reading the messages given off by the ears is an important element of body language. Which is all fine, of course--what I'm saying is that there isn't quite enough backstory and detail given re: the culture of the elves and goblins to really differentiate them from, say, the court of Henry VIII. But this is a minor nitpick and does not distract from the wonderful story.
Without such terrific characterization, this book simply would not work, and I commend the author. I'm aware that it won't be for everyone, but I urge you to give it a try. You may be as pleasantly surprised as I was. As a matter of fact, this book came damned close to knocking Ancillary Sword out of the top spot. I finally decided to place it second, because the Radchaai culture and the character of Breq is, in the end, the more thought-provoking of the two, at least for me. But I would be happy if either of these books was awarded Best Novel.