RogerBW's Blog

The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison 10 May 2015

2014 fantasy. Maia is the fourth son of the emperor of Elfland, exiled to a rural estate and forgotten about. But now the emperor is dead along with his other sons, and Maia becomes the new emperor, thrown headlong into court politics for which he is unprepared.

Gosh. This is a really good book. So let's deal with the bad bits first. Maia's mother was a goblin, and the goblins are the squat, crude and dark-skinned people, compared with the elves who are tall, elegant and fair. So there's fantasy racism. In fact there's very little here that's fantastic: someone's mentioned as having a very long lifespan, and there's a little minor magic, but this would have worked almost unchanged as an historical novel about humans, of a time that happens not to have existed. (Indeed, if someone told me that it was a re-dress of real happenings in Africa or India or somewhere else I don't know much about, I'd be inclined to believe them.) There are some steampunk trappings too (the old emperor died when his airship crashed, and there's a Clocksmiths' Guild that is indulging in steam engineering), but again these are relatively minor elements.

What's likely to offend some readers even more is that not much actually happens. There are coup attempts, certainly, but they are presented as more minefields for the new emperor to navigate, much as are his choice of an empress or whether a bridge should be built across the Great River. There's a series of events, rather than a plot per se, and things don't come to any grand conclusion. This is really a study of character, particularly that of Maia but also of those around him.

In his own ears, Maia’s laugh sounded like the choke of a dying mouse, but it was a laugh and not a scream, so he supposed he should count it a victory.

As an outsider, Maia knows very little of The Way Things Are Done, and any of his advisors may be considered to have their own goals as well as their loyalty to him. Some are clearly his enemies (starting with his chancellor, who makes no secret of his opposition, though his own goals are unclear); most of the rest of the court has the sense to flatter him, and some of them may even mean it.

"We admit, it does not improve our picture of (X) that he would stop on his way to murder us to indulge in petty gloating, but certainly you could not be expected to discern that he would go from petty gloating to murder."

Perhaps Maia is a little too good, although it's shown as a plausible result of what was done to him. But he remains sympathetic, not to mention put-upon, as he tries to do what is right. The world-building is solid and gives a convincing feeling of depth, sometimes literally (as with parts of the Imperial palace that have been built over in generations past but not forgotten).

The Untheileian was a long, tall-windowed room with magnificent stained glass, visible now only as brighter splotches of color along the walls. The courtiers filled it in well-disciplined rows, all of them dressed in full court mourning, faces white and eyes glittering in the gaslight. Maia suffered an uneasy fancy that they, like a pack of wolves, would descend on him and tear him limb from limb. But they only watched.

There are lots of strange and alien words, especially the names, and this may form a barrier to the reader, as may the huge cast (there's a crib at the back). Which one is Chavada, as opposed to Chavar or Chavel? There are archdukes and counts, but some people seem to have the title "osmer" or "dach'osmer" – is that higher than a count? (I think using either all standard, or all alien, ranks might have helped a bit.) The names are sex-marked, but not in the ways we're used to, and again the crib will help dispel uncertainty as one finds one's footing.

I didn't think anything would displace Ancillary Sword as my pick for Best Novel Hugo, but this just might.

Addison is a pseudonym for Sarah Monette, and while I understand that this isn't quite her usual style I shall be seeking out more work by her.

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  1. Posted by Chris Suslowicz at 12:42pm on 11 May 2015

    Ancillary Sword, shirley? Or have you got a time machine stashed away somewhere?

    I have TGE and TTBP still to read....


  2. Posted by RogerBW at 12:59pm on 11 May 2015

    Bah! (Waves claw dismissively.)

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