A Great Book Where Nothing Happens

I get such a kick out of all the different types of writers and books and readers there are in the world. It’s just plain thrilling. The best part is it reinforces the notion that we can all focus on writing the stories we love, and if we write them well, there will be readers who’ll enjoy them.

And, of course, those who don’t, but that’s not the subject of this post and really, does it matter? If we’ve done the hard work and produced a quality book, it’s still not going to appeal to everyone anyway, so why stress about it?

I just finished reading The Goblin Emporer by Katherine Addison. I thoroughly enjoyed it even though nothing happens in the book. Yeah, nothing happens. There are probably 2 pages of action out of 447. I know some readers who would rather spend a night with the stomach flu, bowing to the bowl, than suffer through the lack of a riveting plot.

Yet to me the book was engaging. The pace was graceful, and the main character, a goblin named Maia, was exquisitely real, his emotional life written with meticulous care. I wanted to jump into the pages and hug him. It’s one of those books where you’re pulling and pulling and pulling for the main character. Even without a plot.

Maia is the youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor of the Elflands and has lived his entire life in exile, lonely, uneducated, and missing his dead mother, the only person who ever treated him kindly. When his father and brothers are killed in an “accident,” he is heir to the throne and completely ill-equipped for the intrigue and subtleties of court politics. He’s a kind, sincere young goblin, whose gentle approach endears him to some and leaves him vulnerable to others. The entire book takes place during the first winter of his reign and covers the painful steps he takes coming into his own.  Maia’s journey is far from over by the end of the book, but there’s a glimmer of good things ahead.

Yes, there is a character arc, a modest one. In The Goblin Emperor, it’s the only forward progress in the book, because, yup, nothing else happens.

Aside from those of us who live for character-driven books, how did Addison achieve such wide appeal with a book lacking any hustle and bustle? Partly, in my opinion, by making the extraordinarily clever choice to tell the tale with goblins. Goblins characters and their goblin world switched up the entire story into something unique. I wonder if I would have liked the book as much if Addison wrote about an average human boy. Hmmm, probably not.

Addison’s world-building was complex, a whole geography and history, customs and rituals, philosophies and religions backing up the narrative. I got a kick out of most of it, particularly the character descriptions, the precise style of speech, and elaborate clothing. I will mention one significant challenge: the names of most of the places and characters were confusing – unpronounceable and so similar to each other that, other than the main players, I didn’t know who was who. And yet I still loved the read.

For me, this book reinforced a few notions about writing:
1. Write what you love, that story bursting to be told
2. It isn’t necessary to conform to methods and rules
3. Bust the paradigms and be wildly creative
4. Write the absolute best book you can
5. There are readers who will enjoy your words.

Happy Writing!