The Goblin Emperor — Katherine Addison

Cover of The Goblin Emperor


The Goblin Emperor
Katherine Addison
502 pages
published in 2014

One of the dirty little secrets of book reviewing is that the circumstances under which you read any given book can massively influence how you feel about it. Since I read the first half of The Goblin Emperor on a sunny Thursday afternoon while drinking a nice IPA sitting at an Amsterdam terrace and the other half sitting in my garden on the Friday afternoon following, drinking an even nicer IPA, it’s no wonder I feel quite mellow about it. But in this case I would’ve enjoyed it even had I read it during one of the grey, dull, wet afternoons that you normally get in Amsterdam in early April. This is a great novel and well deserves its Hugo nomination. It’s also the sort of novel you can’t help but read fast, a true page turner.

The Goblin Emperor at heart is a very traditional power fantasy, about the boy of humble origins who becomes emperor by happenstance and now has to very quickly learn how to survive in a world of political intrigue he’s completely unprepared for, filled with people who either want to manipulate him or replace him with a better figurehead. It’s one of those fantasy scenarios other writers can write multiple trilogies about to get to that point, but Katherine Addison has her goblin hero confirmed as the emperor within five pages, the rest of the novel being about him getting to grips with his new job, woefully inadequate though he feels.

Maia Drazhar is the youngest child of the ruling emperor of Elfland, the half goblin son of his fourth wife, who fell from disgrace almost immediately after Maia had been done, exiled to one of the emperor’s hunting lodges. After his mother died, Maia had been left in the tender cares of a disgraced aristocrat, Setheris, who has given him some of the education needed for an emperor’s child, but not nearly enough to prepare him properly for his role, even had he not been exiled far from court. Setheris has also been abusive at times, strengthening Maia’s natural diffidence. In normal circumstances this wouldn’t matter, as four older half brothers and a healthy and hale father meant he’s nowhere near the throne — until they all die in an airship accident that is.

Maia is shaken awake in the first sentence of the first page; by the second page he knows he’s the new emperor and by page ten he’s on his way to the court to deal with his Lord Chancellor somewhat obvious attempt to put him in his place by trying to pressure him into arranging his father’s funeral before his own coronation. That’s only the first crisis he has to deal with. Once he arrives at court he not only has to enforce his will on his Lord Chancellor, he also has to deal with the seemingly more low stake problems of setting up his own household, having come with nothing but the clothes on his back. All this on his first day at court, part of which he also feels obliged to spent at the funeral for the other victims of the crash, its crew.

It’s a bruising introduction to the responsibilities of being an emperor, yet most of these problems were relatively easy to solve. From the second part of the novel, Addison quickly ramps up both the scale and complexity of the challenges Maia finds himself dealing with, including potential coup attempts, the relationship between the emperor and his parliament, as well as the other power centres, not to mention just finding his way through the daily life at the court when he has been educated in etiquette, but has never had the chance to participate in court life itself.

Now I’m a sucker for this sort of court intrigue fantasy and the pace Addison sets and the hurdles she puts in Maia’s way make for tense, gripping reading. The Elfland Maia rules about has a sort of steampunky, 19th century technology level, with magic and the politics ruling Elfland are of roughly the same era. The emperor isn’t all powerful, kept in check both by the old aristocracy and some form of parliament and limited representation. There are tensions between the conservative, land owning east and a more mercantile, outward looking east, as well as racial tensions between elves and goblins, the latter mostly concentrated in the lower classes, but there’s also a goblin kingdom neighbouring Elfland powerful enough that his father felt compelled to enter in the marriage with to Maia’s goblin mother. Now that his half goblin son is on the throne, the relationships with that goblin country are bound to change. There’s a lot of realpolitics going on, which Maia needs to learn to master.

But at the same time and this is what makes it a power fantasy, there remains this idealistic core to Maia’s character, as shown in his attendance at the funeral of the crew killed in the airship accident that made him emperor. He’s desperate not to let his powers as emperor go to his head, to not revenge himself on Setharis for how he treated him during his childhood frex. Maia sometimes does seem too good to be true, is for the most part able to keep to his ideals while also keeping his throne and you may disagree on how realistic this is. But it is a better fantasy than the more common one of the humble peasant boy who becomes emperor who does revenge himself on his enemies.

It’s of course also a conservative sort of fantasy, as it assumes that the difference between an oppressive empire and an benevolent one depends on the character of the emperor, rather than on the system as a whole. One does wonder how Maia’s reign looks like from the point of view of the lower classes, those not represented in court, or whether common goblins profit much from having a half goblin emperor. The Goblin Emperor accepts the system that can propel a half educated, ill prepared outcast to the position of ultimate power, but that’s why it’s a fantasy.

And certainly it’s frank about the realities of this system even for the man at the top. In fact, it reminded me of nothing so much as two videogames that tackle the same subject, the incomparable Crusader Kings II, the game of medieval realpolitics and dynasty building and the deceptively simple but hard to master Long Live the Queen, in which you roleplay a young princess in an attempt to make it safely to her coronation, but in which mastery of court etiquette or animal husbandry may turn out to be just as crucial in saving your reign as being a military strategy genius. Both games have that same in over your head feeling as Addison makes Maia suffer through.

In case you didn’t know, Katherine Addison isn’t an entirely new author, but a new pen name of Sarah Monette, who has been writing fantasy for some time now. She’s one of those authors I’ve know of, but never read anything by, until the buzz for this book got too strong to ignore. I’m not quite sure why she’s taken a new name, but it’s probably because her earlier work has put her in a niche this new identity is an attempt to break out of. For me, she has succeeded. I’m curious to read more of her work, wouldn’t say no to a sequel to The Goblin Emperor, because this was one of the best, most addictive novels I’ve read in a long time. It’s just a pity that this year’s Hugo Awards have been tarred by the Sad Puppy brush, making a potential win by Addison, even though she would deserve it, somewhat less …glorious… than it could’ve been.

A History of Future Cities — Daniel Brook

Cover of A History of Future Cities


A History of Future Cities
Daniel Brook
457 pages including index
published in 2013

I took the title more literally than it was intended when I took it out of the library, thinking this was some sort of futuristic look at how cities were likely to evolve in the twentyfirst century and beyond. Instead it turned out to be a cultural history and comparison between four cities explicitly founded and developed to provide a vision of the future for their respective countries: St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Bombay/Mumbai and Dubai. This looked just as interesting so I kept reading despite the initial disappointment.

The problems with any comparative history book like this is that it’s easy to get lost in the historical narrative of each city and to a certain extent this happened here, as Brook tells the story of each of these four cities in a chronological order, with most chapters focusing on a single city. There is however a certain theme to these stories, one that tells of how modernity is introduced by authoritarian regimes of one stripe or another with the intention to limit its reach to those sectors of society it thinks needs modernising, only to have the city’s influence reach beyond it, for which it is punished, only to ultimately triumph. It’s a very western, neoliberal view of the world, as culminating in the slightly sycophantic look at Dubai.

So, to recap: St. Petersburg was born out of the desire of czar Peter to make Russia into a modern, European military power, deliberately emulating the city of Amsterdam, populated with imported crafts people from Holland and other western European countries. With them and the ideas they brought also came unwelcome imports about things like how serfdom isn’t cool and czarism a drag, which were harshly surpressed but never quite disappeared. As czarist Russia became the stalinist USSR, now Leningrad was downgraded because the totalitarian rulers could never quite trust it.

Meanwhile, Bombay/Mumbai and later Shanghai were cities created out of a coloniser’s need for trade ports, with the British ruling India directly while Shanghai was created into an international free city open to all Europeans but not so much Chinese. In both cases, the cities evolved into a modern, mixed population metropolis of great economic importance, but their respective roles during their countries’ colonial eras meant that those too were shackled by India and China’s new rulers, their values incompatible with those in favour in the rest of the country.

Dubai meanwhile is the post-modern equivalent of these cities, an attempt to emulate them and provide its country with a modern financial and business capital that can maintain its value long after Dubai’s relatively modest oil wealth would run out. The youngest of the four, it’s also the city Brook pays the least attention to.

Brook sees all four cities as sort of precursors for the modern, cosmopolitan, globalised twentyfirst century world, which he largely sees as positive. And to be honest, there is much to be admired in those cities, even a city like Shanghai, which I’d always seen as the quintessential example of western arrogance with regards to China, had its good side. It would actually make for a great model to nick for a space opera setting. A breezy read, as long as you don’t take everything Brook tells you as gospel, this is interesting enough to take a punt on.

Wolfhound Century — Peter Higgins

Cover of Wolfhound Century


Wolfhound Century
Peter Higgins
303 pages
published in 2013

Despite buying more books than’s probably good for me, I still keep a library membership and thanks to that I still end up finding science fiction or fantasy writers and books I wouldn’t encounter otherwise. Case in point: Peter Higgins Wolfhound Century, which I saw lying on the pile of new fiction books near the entrance and whose cover drew my attention. Reading the back cover blurb and the first few pages was enough to take a punt on it. They confirmed what the cover artwork seemed to suggest, that this was a fantasy novel inspired by Soviet Russia, not a setting you see much in fantasy.

The protagonist, investigator Vissation Lom, is the classic honest cop in a totalitarian system and his honesty has of course made him enemies. Nevertheless he’s one of the best investigators in Vlast, which is why he has been summoned to the capital Mirgorod by the head of the secret police. He is to stop and catch Josef Kantor, a terrorist protected by powerful forces from within the Vlast security apparatus itself. Without ties to any of the political factions in the capital or the security services, Lom is hoped to have a better chance at getting Kantor.

So far Wolfhound Century could’ve just as well been set in historical Russia, rather than in a fantasy version of it, but before long it becomes clear more is going on than just some sort of power play within the ruling elites. Kantor hears the voice of a fallen angel, one of the mysterious beings that occassionally rain down on the earth, which centuries ago broke the moon and made possible the very rise of Vlast as a totalitarian empire. Normally those “angels” are dead before they reach the ground, but not this one. This one is imprisoned within the wild forest beyond Vlast’s borders, captured within the earth and making plans to set himself free, plans which Kantor is an essential part of.

Vlast is not a static fantasy empire, though it does portray itself as unchanging, but remnants of its past, both pre- and post founding can be found even in Mirgorod. Within living memory frex the state turned on its own aristocracy. It’s also a state in crisis, losing a war abroad and suffering dissent and resistance at home. Its elites are divided about the need to end the war, while the seemingly senseless violence of Kantor is driving it to a breaking point.

Meanwhile there’s also the matter of Kantor’s supposed daughter Maroussia, whose mother is a forest witch, somebody with ties to the old forest magic, driven mad by it. Maroussia seems to have inherited this talent, much against her will and through it we get glimpses of the Pollandore, “world within a world” and possible key to a different future than the course the fallen angel is setting for Vlast. And not just a different future, but an alternate present and past are hinted at too, in the photographs Lom’s artist friend Vishnik makes of non-existant buildings and streets in the capital.

There is than, at the heart of Wolfhound Century, the outline of a struggle visible, between the totalitarian, Orwellian vision of the Angel, a glorious, fixed future (and past?) in which the earth becomes a launching pad for an universe wide crusade and that of the Pollandore, multiple, flexible pasts, presents and futures, available in essence if not in reality. Yet.

For the most part this vision however is hidden behind the familiar mechanics of the thriller, as Lom and Maroussia have to escape from Kantor’s attentions and the villains make their moves. This all moves along nicely, but isn’t much different from a dozen similar books. What makes it is Higgins’ obvious love for the setting and his writing, as well as those glimpses of the meta plot. I can forgive a writer a lot when he has such pleasure in the journey as well as the destination.

With regards to the setting, there is the problem that, if like Nina Allan at Strange Horizons, you’re familiar with Russian history and literature, you may find Higgins wears his influences on his sleeve, perhaps a tad too much so. For me, though some things were obvious, this wasn’t a problem.

All in all this is an intriguing novel by a writer I wouldn’t mind reading more off. A good case for visiting my library more.

Reaper Man — Terry Pratchett

Cover of Reaper Man


Reaper Man
Terry Pratchett
287 pages
published in 1991

Even before rereading the day after pTerry’s death, Reaper Man was mired in grieving for me. Because I reread it in 2012, the year after Sandra’s death, when I had fallen back on Pratchett’s Discworld series as comfort reading, something to lose yourself in and forget for a while. And then I hit Reaper Man, in which DEATH has been retired by the Auditors for having become too human, has to find a new living as BILL DOOR and a fragile, predoomed romance starts between him and Miss Flitworth, the never married widow he ends up working as a farmhand for. It’s a novel about death and life and humanity and the essence of it is captured by what DEATH argues at the climax of it:

LORD, WHAT CAN THE HARVEST HOPE FOR, IF NOT FOR THE CARE OF THE REAPER MAN?

That’s a sentiment, for all its vaguely Christian overtones, I can get behind. DEATH himself has started off in the first two Discworld novels as a somewhat evil incarnation of the Grim Reaper, through his obsession with reaping Rincewind, but after this had been established as conscientious and extremely careful in doing his job and that quote sums it up to a tee. The harvest needs to be done, but it has to be done with care and attention — there’s a great scene in which BILL DOOR turns out to scythe the wheat one blade at a time and is still faster than everybody else. And it’s this what the Auditors object to.

The Auditors are one of the first of Pratchett’s standins for faceless capitalism, or so I like to read them. No identity of their own, no interest in anything that makes humanity, well, human, no interest in seeing the job done properly, only in that it’s done efficiently without any care for the individual case. Their Death is impersonal yet vindictive, an attitude familiar to anybody caught in the crosshairs of any large company’s “customer service”.

DEATH’s retirement as BILL DOOR meanwhile brings to the fore his own humanity, as he learns to live as human, deal with the passage of time and inevitability of well, himself. Seeing DEATH figuring all this out and how to act in daily life, how to become just Bill Door is both funny and sad, especially since you know how it has to end.

Fortunately there’s more than enough to laugh about in the book’s second plotline, revolving around the wizards having to deal with the fallout of DEATH’s retirement as the lack of things dying leads to a buildup of life forces, enlivening things considerably in Ankh-Morpork. Windle Spoons being one of them, who as a wizard is privileged enough to know the hour of his death, but with DEATH missing, this appointment isn’t kept so he returns as a zombie. Sort of. His colleagues are considerate enough to try out the traditional methods of dealing with the undead on him, to no avail.

Meanwhile even inanimate objects are starting to feel the effects of the absence of DEATH and amongst an infestion of snowglobes and shopping car trolleys is hiding, leading up to something sinister, something parasitic on cities, the shopping mall…

Even though I’ve reread this at least half a dozen times, this still makes me laugh out loud in places, as it makes me choke up in others. Pratchett really hit his stride around this time and Reaper Man would be an excellent place to start reading the Discworld series with. It doesn’t need much prior knowledge, it shows off both his humouristic and philosophical side and it’s representative both of where Pratchett was coming from and where he was going to.

Short SF Marathon: Recap

So what have we learned from reading the almost 100 stories on this list? That there were actually quite a few excellent fantasy and science fiction stories published last year, that even when coming already curated there’s so much stuff out there you can easily drown in it and that there a fair few writers doing interesting things at the short story level I hadn’t heard of before I started this, who I like to see more off.

Of the stories on the list, the following got nominated for one of the short fiction Hugo Awards by me:

Rachel Swirsky, “Grand Jeté (The Great Leap).” Subterranean, Summer 2014.

A brilliant story about a daughter and a father and how they cope with her impending death. I’d call it a 21st century Helen O’Loy if that wasn’t a creepy sexist bit of sentimental shite and this isn’t.

Veronica Schanoes, “Among the Thorns.” Tor.com, May 7, 2014.

Re-imagining a horribly anti-semitic Brothers Grimm fairy tale.

Carmen Maria Machado, “The Husband Stitch.” Granta, October 28, 2014.

A very meta, very allegorical, feminist sort of fantasy story.

Yoon Ha Lee, “Wine.” Clarkesworld, January 2014.

A great space opera sort of science fiction story, with a trans protagonist.

Kathleen Ann Goonan, “A Short History of the Twentieth Century, or, When You Wish Upon A Star.” Tor.com, July 20, 2014.

You could argue that this isn’t science fiction, but this is a story that concerns itself with everything science fiction should concern itself with in the 21st century.

Ruthanna Emrys, “The Litany of Earth.” Tor.com, May 14, 2014.

A Lovecraftian story that refutes Lovecraft’s racism.

Alyssa Wong, “The Fisher Queen.” F&SF, May/June 2014.

“The Fisher Queen” is perfect, already a Nebula nominee and deservedly so. It’s a story about a fisher girl from the Mekong delta who one day learns the truth behind her father’s joking that her mother was a mermaid. Perhaps the best way to describe it is as a feminist fairy tale.

Damien Angelica Walters, “The Floating Girls: A Documentary.” Jamais Vu 3, September 2014.

A very simple story about an unexplained wave of girls, well, just floating up into the air and the indifference with which it is greeted. It feels very much of the moment, a response to things like GamerGate and such.

Kelly Sandoval, “The One They Took Before.” Shimmer #22, November 2014.

An urban fantasy story that looks at what happens after you get back from fairy land. It reminded me a bit of Jo Walton’s Relentlessly Mundane, about the same general emotions of loss and bitterness, but in a different key so to speak.

Rachael K. Jones, “Makeisha in Time.” Crossed Genres #20, August 2014.

Almost impossible, but Rachael K. Jones has managed to write a novel time travel story, of a woman who keeps getting pulled back into the past to lead entire lifes there, only to return to the exact method she left, her family and friends none the wiser, and how she adapts to this. A great story.

Xia Jia, “Tongtong’s Summer.” Translated by Ken Liu. Clarkesworld, December 2014 (originally in Neil Clarke (ed.), Upgraded, Wyrm Publishing, 2014).

Xia Jia writes about the impact of high technology on everyday life and here tackles a very contemporary subject, the use of robots to help an aging population cope with day to day life. In this case Tongtong’s grandfather, in his eighties but still working at the clinic every day until a bad fall, has to come live with them, so Tongtong’s mother could take care of him. Because she and her husband both work, Tongtong’s father brings home a robot, an Ah Fu, to help them. Which isn’t actually a robot, but a tele-operated machine run by an intern for the company Tongtong’s father works for: real robots don’t work and full time carers are too expensive.

Apart from that I also recommended Carmen Maria Machado, Bogi Takács & Usman Malik for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer based on their stories; all were in their second year of eligibility.

On a more negative note, a couple of these stories were just not very good:

Harry Turtledove, “The Eighth-Grade History Class Visits the Hebrew Home for the Aging.” Tor.com, January 8, 2014.

Am I the only one who found this story about an Anne Frank who survived WWII on the creepy side, and not in a good way, especially coming from somebody who made his name essentially writing Slaver Rebellion fanfiction? It doesn’t help that it’s so damn pious about it all, with huge chunks of as you know Bobbery about the Holocaust and what happened to the Dutch Jews in World War II. It’s a very American way of looking at the Holocaust and an approach I find suspicious at the best of the times. I much prefer Lavie Tidhar’s way of handling it, much more willing to take risks with such a heavy subject.

Mary Rickert, “The Mothers of Voorhisville.” Tor.com, April 30, 2014.

This is a stupid story about stupid people doing the most stupid thing possible because they have to adhere to the conventions of genre fiction, so nobody ever talks to anybody else until it’s too late. It’s mired in gender essentialism and goes on for way too long.

Dale Bailey, “The End of the End of Everything.” Tor.com, April 23, 2014.

Now if we do want to talk about science fiction aping memetic, mainstream fiction, the worst it could do is to ape that cliched standby of fanboy sneers, the English professor with a midlife crisis contemplating infidelity. It’s the end of the world, the Ruin is creeping up on the artist colony Ben and his wife Lois have been invited to, but he can’t help thinking of his friend’s gorgous new wife or the mutilation artist living a couple of houses over. Bailey does have a way with a turn of phrase, but the dillemma at the heart of the story didn’t convince me, the allure of torture, death and mutilation was too bland, too safe when it doesn’t matter anymore because the world is ending anyway.