The Goblin Emperor
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.