Nice goblins don't always finish last
As anyone who’s seen my previous reviews will know, my absolute ideal in speculative fiction is decency in adversity. Throwing a character that does not have special powers or super human abilities out into an unknown and unfriendly world and seeing how they cope. Finding The Goblin Emperor in a list of books which highlight everyday nice guys/girls who are suddenly confronted by unusual circumstances, it definitely sounded like a book I’d enjoy, which indeed I did, very much.
The Goblin Emperor starts where many fantasy books finish, with its principle character becoming king. Maia is the fourth and least regarded son of Emperor Varenechibel of the elf kingdom of Ethuveraz. Half goblin by his mother, the empress Chenelo, since his mother’s death he has spent his life far away from court under the care of his abusive and bitter cousin Setheris. When however his father, and all three of his brothers are killed in an airship crash, Maia finds himself suddenly thrust into the glittering, tradition bound world of the Untheileneise court, feeling well out of his depth. With scheming nobles eager to use him for their own ends, the sudden need to understand the bewildering world of elf politics, and the terrifying prospect of selecting an empress, things are complicated enough even before Maia learns that his father’s death might not have been the tragic accident it appears, and sitting on the throne might well make him the next target.
One of the strangest things about The Goblin Emperor is its progression. Looked at in the basic terms of what events actually take place, the book moves extremely slowly, indeed probably the first six of the book’s seventeen hours are spent just on Maia’s first day as emperor, a day mostly composed of meetings with major and minor nobles, servants and functionaries, descriptions of the rich and elaborate court, and Maia’s own feeling of being generally overwhelmed. In other hands this would undoubtedly appear too slow, and furthermore make Maia a frustratingly passive character, yet, slow though the action is Addison’s writing is surprisingly riveting.
Part of this is due to the world Addison creates. There is apparently now a table-top role playing module set in the world of the Goblin Emperor, and it’s not hard to see why. From formal and polysyllabic names and titles, to elaborate descriptions of the costumes and coiffeur of the court’s residents (both male and female), we definitely get the sense that this is a unique place with its own history, traditions and races quite different to what we’d usually expect. Apart from the pneumatic message tunes and airships, Addison represents goblins and elves as more matters of racial types than separate species, with the tall, pale elves contrasted against the black skinned, red eyed goblins, with half goblins (such as Maia), possessing grey skin. These races also come with their own beliefs and customs, indeed a high point later in the book is the visit of the goblin ruler and a chance to see Maia’s mother’s people at first hand.
The fact that Addison creates such a detailed world is doubly impressive, given that poor Maia is basically stuck inside the Untheileneise court for the entire novel, and most of what we learn about the rest of the world we learn at second hand.
Apart from its setting, another major contributing factor to just how compelling the book is, is its characters. Maia is that rare thing, an essentially nice guy, and one furthermore who, despite nominally being the head of state, is virtually a prisoner. Maia’s impressions of his own situation, from his discomfort at the need to be constantly surrounded (even during sleep), by bodyguards and servants, and to have literally every minute of his day planned for him, make the occasions when he’s able to at least take small actions on his own behalf all the more satisfying, indeed a favourite section early in the novel is when he insists against just about everybody’s wishes that he attend the funeral for the crew who died in the airship crash.
I appreciate how in Maia, Katharine Addison directly goes against the common myth that men who have suffered abuse become monsters, and instead just shows how the effect of Maia’s abuse simply increased his capacity for compassion. That being said, the other legacies of Maia’s mistreatment, such as Maia’s lack of understanding that anyone could like him, his low self-esteem; despite his being Emperor, and above all his extreme loneliness and sense of impotence make The Goblin Emperor a surprisingly melancholy, even downright sad novel at times, indeed while Addison herself and many other reviewers have described The Goblin Emperor as a departure from “grimdark fantasy”, despite the lack of blood soaked battlefields the emotional tenor of the book definitely can be grim and dark enough.
The other characters we meet along the way are no less complex than Maia, however the way Addison often gives us a Maia’s eye view of them is quite telling, especially when for example it seems to Maia that people dislike him or are keeping him at a distance; whereas a sensitive reading of the situation would show that actually Maia is very well liked in his own right. Indeed, Maia’s relationship with his two bodyguards, the kindly magician Kahla and the stiff Gard Beshemel is a fascinating one with its own ups and downs.
My only minor problem with the novel’s progression, is that while the rich descriptions and Maia’s view of things make the book highly compelling, the actual plot itself sometimes feels unfinished. Often, we meet characters who appear to have some degree of significance only for them to fall off the map. Partly this is because Maia’s movements are nearly always dictated by others, however it still often feels like an oversight, especially for example when villainous characters even have chapters named for them, then proceed to be almost absent for the rest of the novel. Indeed, Addison sets up several interesting conflicts, for example when we learn that the unpleasant Setheris actually has a devoted wife who adores him, and that Maia would like to at least coexist peacefully with his cousin, and then seems to simply let them peter out with no satisfactory final cadence.
Of course, in a book with such a large cast and so much attention given to detail, some matters might simply get lost; partly however, I did feel it was because Addison had specific messages she wanted to address, which took precedence over resolving the plot. For example, while Maia’s sympathy to the idea of educating women; despite the elves highly patriarchal culture is admirable, at the same time Addison seemed to spend a little too long effusively praising the virtues of female education, even on one occasion trying to suggest that one very unpleasant woman was only acting in a villainous way due to societies low expectations of her; quite a contrast to Cersei Lannister. Addison also takes some time out to tell second hand stories of awesome women, apparently because she felt it necessary to reiterate that women were capable of doing awesome things, rather than taking time to deal with conflicts and resolutions with the characters and in the book, indeed, though these stories had their own merits they did feel a little like digressions from the main plot concerning Maia; after all the capabilities of women should be pretty obvious to most right thinking twenty first century readers without elaboration (especially in a pretty fantastic novel whose author is female).
I was quite surprised that with the book’s title, the fact we see a lot of half goblin servants and at least the vague suggestion of anti-goblin racism, that so much focus was given to the treatment of women, and so little to the treatment of goblins.
Then again, the complex relationship Maia has with his intended, politically selected Empress was an interesting one to follow, especially contrasted with Maia’s own feelings about some other ladies he runs across, and while on the one hand it might have been nice to see some variation in goblins and opinions about them, at the same time, Maia’s meeting with his goblin relatives, a meeting which also gave him a rare chance to actually enjoy himself, was definitely a high point of the book.
I did appreciate that Addison is perhaps the first fantasy author I’ve encountered for a long time who includes a recognizable religious faith, especially since the gods whom Maia worships when he meditates are far more like real world deities than is usual in most fantasy settings. It was also extremely nice to see ecclesiastical figures depicted sympathetically. Indeed, while Addison is certainly nuanced enough to show a range of religious opinions, including bigotry, it is interesting that most of the zealots and fanatics we encounter are practicing an individualistic, self-serving philosophy similar to Nietzsche’s, rather than being the usual religious wackos.
While for the most part the plot moves slowly, there are a few sudden shocks as well, at times I almost felt some of these shocks came a little too fast, though it might just be that since most of the book’s politics is the politer, more social and snobby kind, the occasions when people are desperate enough to resort to murder come more as a surprise than they would in a world where brutality is closer to the surface. What makes these shocks all the more effective, is while the shocks themselves happen quickly, Addison takes her time to examine them thoroughly afterwards, often bringing nuances or changing opinions into play, or showing a range of reactions among her characters.
The book doesn’t so much end as simply finish, however, in many ways The Goblin Emperor is far more the story about the emotional progression of its protagonist, and Maia’s acceptance of his roll and gradual mastery of his situation than the recounting of a set of events with a distinct start and end point. That being said, a particular section, involving the conspiracy of murder was quite pointed, and highlighted a fascinating question and one which it’s interesting to ponder afterwards.
The Goblin Emperor seems to have sparked quite a major reaction, earning a Locus Award, as well as nominations for the Hugo and the Nebula and a host of positive reviews. Though undoubtedly not action orientated, at the same time the book manages to hold your attention and go from the quietly sad story of a lonely young man out of his depth, to the equally quietly triumphant story of a hero who has accepted himself, learned to cope and promises to do a great deal of good for others, indeed, to say it is a story with magic, airships and elves set around a very ritualistic royal court, in some ways The Goblin Emperor is one of the most grittily hopeful books I’ve read for quite a significant while, and one I’d definitely agree deserves its accolade.
This is less a review and more an affirmation of why you should read this book, so I’ll start with a simple statement: READ THIS BOOK.
OK, now that’s out of the way, the reason for my bold declaration.
The writing style in the Goblin Emperor is near faultless and the story is engaging from the moment you turn the first page. There is a soft, subtle texture to the narrative that pulls you along slowly and gently like Charon carrying you along the river Styx. Maia’s story is a sad, tumbling tale of an ill-used and discarded heir to the Throne, thrust from obscurity and neglect to the vaulted position of Emperor. There is a real personality and depth to this book and you cannot help but empathise with the character as he develops and comes to terms with his new lot in life.
Bit of a lead in now, but bear with me. Controversially, I am not a fan of Game of Throne, crazy I know. (That one other person and I do like to meet regularly at our GoT Anonymous and commiserate and make fun of everyone else if that makes it any easier to take). The reason I mention this is I am not a lover, for the main, of political or royal court dramas, all high pomp and backstabbing, but The Goblin Emperor is set for the majority in the confides on the Royal Palace, specific to a handful of rooms, and deals with the politics and the emotional rise of a new Emperor.
Sticking with this theme, it’s the fact there are no brutal sexual themes, no graphic splashes of decapitations or amputations and no glorifying the degradation of people for no other reason than to give a shock to the reader. Addison/Monette holds you from the opening chapters as Maia, dismayed and despairing, struggles to come to terms with his cold father’s death and his ascension to a lonely Throne, with the fallout you might expect in a royal court.
The story has its twists and turns, nothing too dramatic or surprising and is told across an expansive kingdom and diversity of people, but there are no flashy fight scenes, dragons or mighty heroes, just a fragile king looking for friendship and guidance, with a desire to make the life of the people he rules better. It’s this theme that resonates and makes you love the book even more.
Fergus McCartan, 9.3/10
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