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The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Hugo Award Nominee

Maia Drazhar is the youngest son of the emperor of the Elflands, but his mother was a goblin princess whom his father married for diplomatic reasons. He has spent all of his eighteen years in exile, first with his mother but most recently alone except for his guardian, an embittered drunkard. But then Emperor Varenechibel IV and Maia's three older half-brothers all die in the same airship accident, and the unwanted boy wakes up to find that he has become the emperor.

The outline of the story is a classic fantasy trope, but Maia never obtains a magic sword nor leads a troop in battle. He finds the imperial palace to be every bit as lonely as the dreary manor house of his exile, at first, and his deprived upbringing has left him ill-prepared for the task of ruling a large, complex empire on the verge of an industrial revolution. And that airship accident? Wasn't an accident … .

On the basis of my own reading and the writeups I've seen from others, your enjoyment of this book will depend a lot on whether you can deal with a lot of (fairly well done) antiquated formal language in your dialogue and whether you would like something that "fulfills … wishes about nerdy, bullied people achieving great things through peaceful means" (to quote writer/editor Nick Mamatas, who did not find the book to be his sort of thing at all). I enjoyed it enough that it's already become a comfort read.

A couple of decades ago, author Ursula Le Guin wrote about the fact that a pivotal character in a story could be one who makes choices (forgive me, I don't remember where I read this, but it may have been one of the essays in her book Language of the Night). Le Guin was discussing ways in which female characters can be the center of their own stories without following the paths of action traditionally associated with male characters, but I believe that Maia is a male example of this idea. Almost from the beginning, he realizes that if he exploits the awe and subservience that he now evokes in his subjects, he will not only become what he hates but will likely also lose his position (and possibly his life) in short order.

The path he chooses to tread instead is no guarantee of a happy result either, but at least he can live with himself. Some of the people who dislike this book describe Maia as passive, but that's an oversimplification. The setting is not some early medieval society of fiefs owing their ruler military support, but instead a near-modern nation with a well-developed bureaucracy, active guild system, and labyrinthine systems of manners and rituals. Maia's problems are not going to be solved by taking up the sword and leading a troop of warriors. His head is soon spinning with what he needs to learn about running the empire, and the lonely boy from the sticks quickly finds the emperor's complete lack of privacy both depressing and oppressive.

There's been some discussion about whether this is really fantasy or not: the elves and goblins pretty obviously stand in for our own human races. But there is magic. As some have pointed out, the magic is split in classic tabletop RPG fashion between clerical magic (for example, questioning the dead and communicating with the gods) and wizardly magic (we're shown a sleeping spell and a carefully directed lightning bolt).

There is no one single quest (or anything like one) propelling the story. It is "merely" a series of incidents in the first months of the new emperor's reign. Maia is crowned, presides over his father's burial, takes up the reins of the empire, learns his business by doing it, deals with the fact that he is expected to wed strategically as soon as possible, helps solve the mystery of the airship incident that put him on the throne, learns some sharp lessons about trust and loyalty, gains some companionship despite the fact that the whole imperial system seems stacked against it, and takes his first tentative steps toward making his mark on history.

And I found it quite satisfying in the end, with tons of delicious little world-building details along the way.

One heads up that might help, if you're not so sanguine about being thrown into the deep end of a work filled with multi-syllable names, titles, and terminology: the end of the book has a glossary/dramatis personae and some notes about the various honorifics used by the nobles of the court.

Note: Katherine Addison is a pseudonym of Sarah Monette, a/k/a truepenny.

This entry is also posted at Dreamwidth. Comment at either location, as you prefer.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 5th, 2015 04:47 am (UTC)
I liked it a lot, though I did feel that some things fell into Maia's lap too easily. He had a significant number of extremely competent, good-hearted people assigned to him.

Still, I don't think a story about a person achieving good through peaceful means is inherently a lesser (or even more wish-fulfillment oriented) story than one about a person achieving good through violence, or one in which all attempts to do good are brutally crushed, or one in which no one ever attempts to do good.
Jul. 8th, 2015 01:20 am (UTC)

He was awfully fortunate ... but you know, having been a Fed through multiple changes of administration, my experience is that when the bureaucracy gets that large, you may have all sorts of basically good-hearted people keeping their heads down during the reign of anything but the most paranoid tyrant. So the only one that struck me as really a gift from the gods was Csevet, because most of the rest followed on his advice.

Yeah, the idea that grimness and violence are somehow more worthy ... it reminds me of the fact that many aspiring wine snobs think that any kind of a sweet wine is less sophisticated and worthy than something with a big oak flavor and so on, because it's too easy to like sweet things. Likewise comedy vs. tragedy, with the assumption than comedy can never be great the way tragedy can.

Jul. 5th, 2015 08:30 am (UTC)
Oh, man, she managed to hit all the tropes I normally hate and do them so very well that I loved every damn second of this book. I love it so much I've read it twice and listened to the audiobook twice (highly recommended for anyone having trouble with the names; Kyle McCreary does a fantastic job).

I can't recommend it enough, simply because I should have hated it or at least been all "meh" about it, but I freaking loved it. So, so much.
Jul. 8th, 2015 01:21 am (UTC)

Which part did you like the best? I think my heart first melted when the old seal-maker thought to bring out Maia's mother's unused seal design.

Edited at 2015-07-08 01:22 am (UTC)
Jul. 8th, 2015 04:10 am (UTC)
Aargh, I think just the whole thing works together so well. But the parts I liked best involved him and his fiancee and him getting to know Beshalar and Cala better. And Csevet. I love his sort-of friendship with Csevet.
Jul. 5th, 2015 10:30 am (UTC)
As you know, I'm not as fond of SFF as the rest of you, but this sounds good. My one concern is how the elf/goblin divide is handled, especially which human races they might be stand-ins for, and whether there are human characters as well. Otherwise, this, which I've heard other good things about, sounds right up my alley.

Hild, which you mention in a DW comment, is a book I've heard even more good things about. An author I follow on Twitter loved it and an English lit professor whose blog I read (I follow her Twitter now too) who is not usually lavish with praise loved it. Main female character with other important female characters who wields power and solves problems with the mind, not the heart? Based on a historical figure? Yes, please! I have to drag my ass to the library to get that one. Guess I'll be looking for two books now.

Also, I took your advice and picked up a copy of Wizard From Earthsea at a rummage sale. If I don't like it, I'm going to conclude that despite my admiration for her, LeGuin is just not for me. (This started with my unenthusiastic response to The Left Hand of Darkness.)
Jul. 8th, 2015 01:34 am (UTC)

Well, I will say that A Wizard of Earthsea has a rather different tone. For one thing, it's being written for a youth audience. For another, she uses a deliberately "legendary" tone, rather than a modern YA voice. You'll know how you feel about it by the end of the first chapter.

(On the other hand, there are interludes in Left Hand where she uses a similar tone: where the traditional tales of the Orgota are being told.)

There are no human characters in Goblin Emperor. It's not a book that stands up well to an anthropological or evolutionary analysis: there are these two races that are fully interfertile (and therefore by our standards are the same species), and that's just how it is. The only discussions I've seen on that aspect of it point out that both races have detail and weight: elves are rather hoity-toity and build beautiful buildings, goblins are earthier but seem to have more elaborate and sophisticated food, both races are given to fancy clothing and rich jewellery (although in different styles) and so on.

And they both use their ears to express emotions: Addison's descriptions are very entertaining.

Jul. 8th, 2015 05:40 am (UTC)
Thanks for the info! I thought that elves and goblins were the only two "races," but wasn't sure. Full speed ahead, then...other than the fact I've started to build up a scary TBR pile on my Kindle.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


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