Review: The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

The Goblin EmperorMaia is the fourth son of the Emperor of the Elflands, and as a half-goblin conceived of a political marriage his father never wanted to make, he is reviled and exiled from the heart of elven society. It comes as a shock to none more than him when his father and half-brothers are killed in an airship accident, and he is suddenly propelled onto the throne. Maia is kind, shy, the victim of abuse at the hands of his guardian after his mother’s death, and utterly uneducated in politics or courtly manners. Choosing the right allies, forging a new path for his kingdom, and keeping his head around those who would happily remove it from his shoulders are skills he has only days to master.

The Goblin Emperor is not at all a plot-driven novel. It starts with a pivotal event in Maia’s life, but from there it proceeds at a leisurely pace through a tangled skein of courtly relationships to arrive at a denouement less concerned with wrapping up the story in a neat bow than with highlighting the change in Maia himself. For a novel based entirely in the ruling court of the land, the seat of politics, it’s strangely apolitical as well — almost everyone is exactly who you’ll peg them to be when they’re first introduced, and there aren’t any surprises or schemes that can’t be seen coming a mile off. What it is is a character study centered on a rich subject. Maia is a deeply endearing person to get to know, a genuinely good heart who exudes compassion without straying into the saccharine, and whose fears, flaws, and wounds are laid bare. He’s a remedy to the notion that ‘good’ must equal ‘bland’.

I really like the fact that in so many ways, for much of the novel, he’s clueless, and scrambling to cover it with mixed results. He doesn’t know how to be appropriate with his household staff, to be their emperor when he’d rather be their friend, or just not be around them at all. He doesn’t know how to make small talk with lords and ladies. He doesn’t have the first clue about women. And being intelligent doesn’t compensate for lack of education about how the realm is run, and the parts he’ll need to take in running it. His advisors’ conversations often go over his head while he struggles to come up with ways to patch the holes in his knowledge without betraying more vulnerabilities to those waiting to use them against him. Fantasy has a lot of stories about boys who never expected to be kings or emperors unexpectedly landing on the seat of power, and it beggars belief a little when, all too often, Farmboy Joe suddenly revolutionises the running of the kingdom out of the power of goodness of heart, as though political acumen and the vast and complex array of knowledge imparted to royal heirs over decades of preparing to take the throne can be picked up by osmosis faster than most of us could learn to say ‘Can you pass the salt?’ in the local lingo. It’s far more interesting to watch the fish out of water learn to fly.

I appreciate the use of fantasy for creating analogies that subtly tackle real-world social issues, which is attempted on a couple of levels here, but with mixed success. The pale-skinned elves and their supposed contempt for dark-skinned goblins, and Maia’s mixed ancestry, making for a comparison to racial prejudices isn’t exactly a score on the subtlety front, but it could’ve worked well enough had it not been kind of half-heartedly abandoned; we’re supposed to believe that Maia’s goblin ancestry is kind of a big deal, but it’s really only painted as such in the opening pages, being largely set aside by the middle of the book. I think the author did a better job with the role of women in elven society, which has mostly a typical pseudo-medieval outlook on women’s places as baby-makers and tradeable commodities to secure politically convenient marriages, but shows a number of women choosing different paths to try to move beyond that. One of the most heart-warming moments in the book is Maia’s choice to help his half-sister with the freedom to pursue scientific education instead of marriage; she is an astronomer, and he gives her the stars, because as he put it, ‘We were not considered worth educating, either.’ Aww. The women are not all that fully characterised on the whole, though.

Addison’s use of language threw me to begin with, but turned out to be proficient and contributed greatly to the feel of the novel. ‘Thee/thou’ is used in informal speech; the majestic plural ‘we’ is used to refer to oneself in all formal speech; dropping it and referring to oneself as ‘I’ is an almost intimate act. It immediately established a very structured elven society, and Maia’s growth is reflected in his transition from awkwardly botching it to very deliberately using it to erode some of the traditions of his society while upholding others.

Even though the novel doesn’t really wrap all that much up story-wise, I’m comfortable with where it leaves Maia as a person, and don’t really feel the need to revisit him, but if Katherine Addison were to write another set in the same world I’d be keen to pick it up — I would like to see more of the goblins’ own society, which we glimpse in brief when Maia gets to meet some of his mother’s side of the family. In the meantime, I look forward to checking out her work under her other name of Sarah Monette.

4 stars

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