Addison, Katherine (2015), The Goblin Emperor, Tor
So when I read books I often tend to read them with a goal to maybe review them, and sometimes I just have these palate cleanser books that won’t turn up as a review or in a bibliography; at best they will make an appearance on Twitter. Especially comic books or fantasy novels – I’ve written numerous reviews of both genres and at some point one worries about repeating oneself. I don’t have something interesting to say about every book I read. Sometimes it’s just a shrug and a thumbs up or down. Brian Posehn’s Deadpool run? Very nice. Jan Peter Bremer’s Döblin Preis winning novel? A bit dull. Bryan Frances’s book on relativism? Very nice. So when I started to read Katherine Addision’s “debut” novel The Goblin Emperor (I’ll explain the inverted commas in a moment) I didn’t expect it to end up here with its own review. However, as I thumbed through its last pages yesterday, I found myself intrigued enough by the book that I wanted to talk about it. So first things first: The Goblin Emperor is, as far as high fantasy goes, a fairly unique, very interesting book, that upholds many flaws of the genre, but, like The Copper Promise (see my review here), provides a very welcome light addition to fantasy that does not run the grimdark gamut. It’s a bit tedious in stretches but overall it’s a light and very enjoyable read if you like court intrigues in a very lightly steampunk setting. It has some of the nicest and most well rounded characters I’ve encountered in fiction in a while, but it relegates most of its truly intriguing characters and character developments to its fringes, whether that’s spare appearances or mere mentions. Look, if you like court intrigues and high fantasy and don’t need it to be “dark” or “realistic”, go for it. The world building in this book is fantastically accomplished, without the usual crutches. Everything that went into this book feels necessary to the structure and plot and doesn’t just add picturesque details or pretty mountains on one of those notorious epic fantasy maps. Despite the book never really leaving the confines of the capital city, we are made aware of the larger world around it. And the best aspect of the book is the way its narrative is restricted to the point of view of its barely-adult protagonist, it never falls into the trap that so much high fantasy falls into, of endless, helpless ruminations. The narrative is tight and the prose is perfectly adequate for its goals.
In fact, the book is so accomplished that it’s hard to believe it’s anyone’s debut novel. And despite the coy author’s bio inside, Katherine Addison is really Sarah Monette, a more seasoned author, with 6 previous novels to her name, two of them co-authored with genre heavyweight Elizabeth Bear. So The Goblin Emperor doesn’t come from nothing, but that would have been hard to believe anyway, given the extraordinarily controlled style and environment we are offered by this twice-named author. In the previous paragraph, I mentioned the “epic fantasy maps” that are so ubiquitous in the genre and which work as crutches for us as readers to not get lost in the multitude of names and places and things. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing and in fact, for many years I (raised as I was on the conscientious cartography of JRR Tolkien and D&D campaigns) thought that the miserable incompetence of Terry Goodkind’s terrible fantasy novels was prefigured in the poor and simple maps of Wizard’s First Rule. Many years of reading fantasy later I find that terrible books can sometimes come with very nice maps. While completely mapless, Addison/Monette’s book does come with a glossary and a brief morphology of names and titles, and while we can do without the maps, it’s hard to do without those things in a book like this. The Goblin Emperor feels like I’m told reading classic Russian novels feels to many readers: we are overwhelmed by an unbelievably large amount of names that all seem somewhat similar. More than once I had to browse earlier chapters to remind myself of who a person was exactly. That’s because, just like Russian novels can be disorienting due to their sheer amount of patronymics, Addison/Monette leaves us right in the thicket of a wealth of honorifics, family names, gender suffixes and much more. There’s no big infodump in the book that tutors the reader – instead, the author serves up a wholly realized world, and just expects us to find our way around all the strange words and names as we tag along with the story. In fact, for all that the world building is meticulous, the lack of maps and the elaborate nature of the names and terminology point to a world building that is based more on philology than topology, a point subtly driven home by the author when, during the course of a formal dinner party, we are allowed to eavesdrop on an actual philological debate between two minor characters. Yet even more than a clever way to deal with world-building, the dearth of explanation that happens in much of this has another effect.
The book’s protagonist is the youngest son of the recently deceased Emperor. Addison/Monette borrows from the stock of high fantasy races and has the main race of inhabitants of the capital city be elves. Maia, the protagonist, however, is half elvish and half goblin, being the offspring of the late Emperor’s ill-fated political marriage to a goblin princess. Despite being of doubly royal blood, Maia had been exiled to a faraway province where he lived a tranquil but unhappy life. The sudden death of his father, whose steam powered airship was the target of a political assassination [as an aside: what’s with crashing steam powered airships as a plot starting device?], as well as of everybody else that could have a better claim on the throne than the 18 year old half goblin, forces Maia to return to court where he hasn’t been in ten years and where he has never lived to begin with. As Maia arrives, he is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of people and riches around him, not to mention the court intrigue and responsibility. A boy who has lived all his life on what basically amounts to a farm is now thrust into the hot cauldron of a vast empire’s capital city. And yet. we never despair for him, we are not scared or worried. This is because the author has set up her character with just the right amount of knowledge and, more than that, what they call “a good head on his shoulders”. We have all read these books narrated by less than bright characters, as readers most of us remember the anguish that comes with following a narrative of bad choices and impending tragedy or tragedies narrowly averted. Maia, in contrast to these books, has had very solid training and has developed fine instincts for how to relate to people, how to act when under pressure and how to deal with one’s fellow man. He manages to survive the first turbulent days and get himself crowned emperor (no spoiler here, it’s the title of the book). Now, whenever he is explained a fact about court, we are explained the same fact at the same time, so as he grows and learns, we do too. As readers, we cannot, however, duplicate his bewilderment when faced with the plurality of people, objects and the vastness of space that Maia has to traverse, inhabit and command. We are told he is bewildered, but we cannot share that feeling – which is where the author’s insouciant use of names and terms comes in. As a native speaker of the language, these are not things bothering Maia. but for the reader they are a kind of crutch that helps us approximate his confusion.
This is important because, at least through the first third of the book, I thought that the novel does an extraordinary job of being not a book about elves, goblins and court intrigue, but about foreignness, and isolation in a new culture that is not your own. Being myself “half Goblin” (well, half Russian), I found this part truly well executed. But not in the way adult books about foreignness are usually executed (say, Roth’s Call It Sleep) and more the way kid’s books work (say, Abdel-Fattah’s Does my head look big in this?). In many ways, the book feels as if its audience is young adults, more than with other fantasy novels, even though it is, as far as I can see, not categorized that way by author or publisher. But the kindness of the book, the way it takes its reader hy the hand and helps him understand the protagonist’s state of mind, as mentioned in rhe previous paragraph, it adds up to an impression of the author being as patient and careful with her readers as Maia’s tutors and new friends are with him. There are no pitfalls, as readers of the recently popular [I’m using the word recently as old people like me are wont to do. Not necessarily the dictionary definition] “grimdark” variety of fantasy writing would expect. Characters that seem trustworthy are trustworthy. The characters that seem like they have something bad up their sleeve, are generally bad news. This is not just us seeing the world through the eyes of someone with good instincts – this is a fundamentally balanced world. I mentioned The Copper Promise earlier. In a much different way, both books offer a genuine kind of escapism, a way of reading without your guard up. Everything is as it seems. It doesn’t make Maia’s life easy, and, in fact, the book doesn’t skirt dark moments, including executions and the weight that comes with having power over life and death. But at the same time, parts of this are worrisome. The world of The Copper Promise felt mostly democratic, despite one of its characters being a lord. Its main protagonist is a poor mercenary and her triumphs and losses are those of everyday people. Not so with The Goblin Emperor. Politically, it’s a very odd book. All that balance I mentioned? It’s balanced around a center and that’s Maia, the benevolent king.
All the concessions, all the niceness. all the emotions, they are all granted by this king. Maia is told to pick a wife, and that woman has to agree to marry him. And while he’s very nice and shy about it, it still happens that way and a woman who is clearly reluctant does end up marrying him. Many of the emotional bonds Maia shares are bonds with his servants and some of the emotional high points highlight how gladly and absolutely his close servants serve him. There are mere glimmers of their private lives and of lives in general that are not like Maia’s. One of Maia’s aunts lives with a wife as a Sea Captain somewhere and we know barely more than that, it’s just something that comes up in conversation. There’s also a gay couple at a dance one night, and that’s almost all we learn about that. In fact, while I enjoyed the first third as a very effective disquisition about alienness and migration, the longer I followed Maia’s narrative the more irritating I found the fact that racial difference is encoded in terms of elf and goblin. Political change, it’s implied, can only come from the top rungs of a hierarchy. Indeed, the novel is very careful to include a picture of revolutionaries that makes sure to have us understand that they are ruthless and maybe a bit insane. All of this is much more unpleasant by the overall didactic, balanced tone. I will say that part of my unhappiness with the way politics, race, gender and difference is handled in the second half of the novel is influenced by me having read as excellent a work of fantasy as N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, or Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books (review), both of which show the potential of this genre. I will say: this is my main complaint about the The Goblin Emperor (and it’s something many other books in the genre do, as well), which in most other ways, is very accomplished and a truly enjoyable read, if this be your genre.
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