A few weeks ago I finally finished with revisions to my dissertation and rewarded myself with a read of The Goblin Emperor, the first book published under the name of Katherine Addison (the pen-name for Sarah Monette, accomplished spec-fic author).
It’s been a while since I experienced such pure undiluted reading enjoyment. I was thrilled on every page that this book even existed, and even more excited that Katherine Addison is a young writer so that, hopefully, I have much more to look forward to.
One of the reasons The Goblin Emperor is so enjoyable is that the world Addison describes is jewel-like in its uniqueness and detail. In the elvish kingdom of Ethuveraz, airships cruise the skies (and sometimes crash), rivers are bridged with retractable bridges, and clockmakers craft fine timepieces for their rulers. Tea ceremonies and dances and imperial funerals are so tightly scripted that they run like the aforementioned clockwork. Meticulously-planned public appearances and elaborate ceremonies hem in the world of Maia, our protagonist, the half-goblin heir to the elvish throne after an airship disaster kills his estranged father and brothers.
These aren’t Tolkien‘s elves and goblins, though. The world of The Goblin Emperor (reflecting, perhaps, Monette’s background in Renaissance literature) is, in many ways, indistinguishable from a human society. Elves are fairer, with finer features, than goblins — and, y’know, because they’re elves, something’s different about their ears. Maia’s racial difference is marked, primarily, by his skin color. But Addison’s elves aren’t inherently noble, or wise, or magical, or immortal, just as her goblins aren’t inherently stupid, noseless, warty, or evil. The elves and their interactions with the visiting goblin king, the Great Avar of Barizhan, reminded me of nothing so much as one of those “classy” (read: snobby) European kingdoms — the French, perhaps, or the Germans — treating with a Russian tsar or a Hungarian king.
The Goblin Emperor is almost wholly devoid of magic, with two minor exceptions. One character seems to be able to commune with the dead, but all of his work happens off-screen, as it were. The other bit of magic consists of one spell, cast by one of Maia’s bodyguards as a defensive measure against a potential assassin. But even with this display of otherworldly forces, the narration rushes past a detailed description of magic, instead focusing in on Maia’s shock and fear at his assassination attempt. If it weren’t that every character was either a goblin or an elf — two races whose literary heritage is inextricably entwined with the concept of fantasy — this could have been a story about human politics. It’s a lot like watching an episode of House of Cards set in a Renaissance kingdom.
Except that Frank Underwood is no Maia. Because Maia is the very best. Until Maia, I had never read such a tender-hearted, honest, good character that I didn’t, at some level, find unbelievable. (I love Dickens, but gag me every time Esther Summerson speaks in Bleak House). A lot of his goodness is rooted in his backstory. The unwanted son of the emperor, Maia has been shelved in Edonomee, a backwater county of Ethuveraz, to be looked after by his abusive cousin Setheris. But Maia’s reaction to tyrannical authority is not rebellion but a withdrawal, a development of his inward self which Setheris’s treatment cannot touch.
When he becomes emperor, does Maia go mad with power and order his former oppressor tortured? No. While Addison’s portrayal is frank — Maia has very realistic impulses to hurt and punish Setheris — he fights with himself on these impulses, eventually finding a way to keep himself away from the bad memories that Setheris conjures without ruining his cousin’s life. Maia’s adventures with romance are similarly nuanced. The first time he sees a female elf in eight years, he almost slobbers on himself. He ends up infatuated with an opera singer; his obvious desire for her makes him the butt of jokes in his court. But, although he could certainly order her (or, at the very least, pay her) to warm his bed, he doesn’t. He understands that it would be an embarrassing experience for both of them. In all of his dealings with people who challenge him, Maia lets compassion rule him.
How is such a paragon of virtue (and a teenager, at that — Maia is 18 when he takes the throne) realistic? Because Addison shows Maia thinking through his feelings. The inwardness he developed through years of isolation and unhappiness allows for a very realistic conflict between Maia’s selfish impulses and his higher nature.
The Goblin Emperor doesn’t end in flowers and rainbows. Maia doesn’t develop a cadre of chums in whom he can confide when the crown gets too heavy, and he doesn’t marry the sexy opera singer. But he makes some good decisions for Ethuveraz, and begins to build a legacy he’ll be proud to leave behind. And while responsibility has isolated him as effectively as his exile in Edonomee, he realizes the relationships he does have, although they can’t really be called friendships, are enough to nurture him as he moves forward.
Extra good bits:
- Addison’s political landscape is so fully-realized that, although these issues never take center stage, her book touches on LGBT issues and women’s & worker’s rights.
- The language Addison has created rocks. No cheesy half-baked vaguely-Latinate names for things here. And, for us word-nerds, there’s a glossary in the back with grammatical explanations. Squeee!
The Goblin Emperor is an unusual fantasy, but I really enjoyed it. Maia is the rejected and unloved 18 year old half-goblin son of the fourth wife of the emperor of the elves. Maia has been living in exile and isolation for years, but unexpectedly becomes the emperor when his father and three older half-brothers die in an accident. Suddenly Maia has to learn everything from the methods and processes of ruling to dancing and social skills. Maia is dealing with a truly severe case of self-doubt, but he’s determined to do his best, and also to try to do what’s right. Which is going to cause some ripples in an elven kingdom that already isn’t at all certain that a goblin half-breed is the right emperor for them.
Is The Goblin Emperor a perfect book? No. The names were terribly confusing — at least until I discovered the glossary in the back of the book when I was halfway through, after which point I read the rest of The Goblin Emperor with one finger stuck in the glossary. For better or worse, there’s not a lot of action or romance: this is more of a tale of political intrigue and coming of age. Interestingly enough, there’s also very little magic actually happening in this fantasy. What there is, is a lot of introspection on Maia’s part as he tries to figure out how to be a good king and whether he even has it in himself to be one. It was fascinating to watch him learn how to relate to the characters around him, and to see his growth as a person and as a ruler.
But as soon as I finished The Goblin Emperor I had the urge to immediately start reading it again from the beginning, which is one of the two things that will pretty much get a book a 5 star rating from me when it might not otherwise quite deserve it. (The other is when I immediately start looking up other books the author has written and considering which one to buy.) The world-building is unusually strong and well-thought out. Maia is a sympathetic and intelligent (if sometimes awkward) protagonist. If Addison writes a sequel, I’m there.
The Goblin Emperor is, quite simply, utterly entrancing. Katherine Addison has created a wholly wonderful, deeply treacherous, thoroughly realistic empire and then thrust the most unlikely of rulers into a writhing snake pit — but, miraculously, it doesn’t ruin him. It doesn’t break him, doesn’t drag him down into the filth and corruption, but rather, Emperor Edrehasivar VII (or, if you please, just Maia) manages to retain his compassion and empathy, becoming a wholly new kind of emperor, and one that is sorely needed amidst the schemers and murderers and ordinary people just trying to get through another day.
Kate and Tadiana each address all the details, both large and small, that contribute to this being such a special novel: Addison’s gift of language-creation, her delicate spinning of courtly webs and intrigue, the little touches of magic amongst the clockwork contraptions, the absolutely brutal political gamesmanship. Maia’s innate goodness is balanced against his struggles to overcome his own impulses toward arrogance, vengeance, and fear, to perfect effect. I was immediately drawn into the descriptions of courtly etiquette, culture, and costuming, and it’s clear on every page how much thought and work Addison invested into making Maia’s world come alive. I’d been looking forward to reading The Goblin Emperor for a long while, and that anticipation was rewarded completely. I’ll be adding this novel to my list of must-rereads, and hopefully, the first stand-alone follow-up novel, The Witness for the Dead, will soon be joining it.