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!