Nearly two years ago, I read a book by Sarah Monette called Mélusine, and I hated it. I considered it a train wreck of a novel. I wasn’t looking to read anything more by Monette in a long time. Now she’s back under the pen name of Katherine Addison (apparently for career reasons, which is a little silly, but I can also understand why). And not only am I giving The Goblin Emperor four stars, but I consider it every bit worth the Hugo nomination it has received, and I will not be disappointed if it wins. (I’m not sure if I’m voting for it yet, because I haven’t read The Three Body Problem or Ancillary Sword and expect good things from both.) This is a novel that is worth its hype.
Having had a few days now to think on it, what has stayed with me the most about The Goblin Emperor is its positivity. Don’t get me wrong: plenty of terrible things happen in this book. Maia spends his entire life prior to becoming emperor in seclusion, raised by an abusive and negligent disgraced courtier and kept ignorant of the political and social knowledge he desperately needs if he is to rule. After he becomes emperor, he is totally the victim of a couple of coup attempts—plus he doesn’t know how to dance!
No, what I mean is that the arc of the plot is quite positive: things for Maia (and the empire itself) gradually and steadily get better. The setbacks are more like growing pains. For a book about an inexperienced young half-breed becoming emperor, I expected a lot worse to happen. I expected open rebellion, a forced marriage to a woman he doesn’t love, and complete inability to change anything about the empire or court. Instead, Maia manages to make friends, deal effectively with some of his enemies, and make a start towards real change. He is a surprisingly effective ruler.
Why does this positivity surprise me? It shouldn’t, really. But I feel like a large proportion of recent fantasy has gone to the dark side. We can blame grimdark (or is that GRRMdark?) for some of this trend—being “edgy” is cool (but writing rape scenes is not cool, Game of Thrones writers…). And perhaps it’s a reflection of current events, the zeitgeist, whatever…. That’s a larger discussion that we might be able to have here. Whatever the reason, dark is cool and light not so much, so in this climate, The Goblin Emperor is a surprise and a delight and a breath of fresh air.
Addison shows that positive fiction can still be paltable, even pleasurable fiction. Despite the fact that Maia’s closest allies don’t somehow end up dead in the middle of Act Three to really “raise the stakes” before the conclusion, I still managed to enjoy the book. I guess I’m just a freak or something. Anyway, the pleasure in this book comes from a few sources—your individual mileage with each source is going to vary greatly, but I think this is a fantasy novel that could appeal to a wide range of fantasy fans.
The worldbuilding, for one, is top notch. I was very critical of the way Monette manages the worldbuilding in Mélusine. It’s much better here. The story might be about “elves” and “goblins,” but there is almost no magic involved (I think there are two scenes total that involve explicit magic use). It’s all court intrigue and politics. Addison uses a consistent system of prefixes, suffixes, etc., in names of people and places to help create the sense that this is an old, proud society. For those of you who get tripped up with this stuff, or want to know more about it, there is an appendix (a great way to avoid too much exposition). For those like me whose eyes just skim over the stuff one thinks unimportant, the consistency of these devices makes it easy to ignore them once you understand what’s going on.
Maia’s vulnerability balances perfectly with his proactive nature as a protagonist. He is not the Chosen One by any stretch of the imagination (pretty much no one wants him as emperor, not even him, but that’s what happens when you have an inherited system of governance!). Yet he is not quite toothless either. The whole first act is basically him reacting and relying on people like Csevet (whom I kept expecting to betray him, because grimdark) to give him advice. In Act Two, Maia starts testing the waters: he starts making allies, making decisions, taking action, generally being emperor. Then in Act Three, the baddies push back, launch their own plans, and Maia and his allies have to deal with the fallout. During this whole time, Maia is evaluating his actions and others’ and changing as a person as he tries to become the emperor he thinks this country needs.
This emphasis on Maia’s duty as the emperor is excellent, because it is so multi-faceted. Everyone has a taken on it. Maia’s servants and minions feel that he has a duty to present a certain persona. He can’t apologize, for instance—that’s not emperor-like! Chavar the Lord Chancellor expects Maia to be a puppet emperor, unschooled and naive enough for him to manipulate or bypass completely. Tethimar certainly hopes Maia will be a weak emperor easily swayed by veild (or not-so-veiled) threats. And Maia himself feels that he has a duty to not be his father, who was cold and disapproving of most things Maia approves of (like his mother). Much of the conflict of this book comes from Maia’s attempts to negotiate the tensions among these various interpretations of his duty.
As a consequence, Addison produces an adept commentary on the challenges faced by a parliamentary monarch. In addition to the central question—what makes a good monarch?—she explores the difficulty becoming a monarch and maintaining one’s own individuality—the distinction between Maia, a person with wants and needs, and Edrehasivar VII, the emperor. Scores of historical fiction novels tackle this theme, but I feel like fantasy tends to get caught up in the action around monarchs more so than their introspective, personal selves. It becomes all about the attempts to overthrow a ruler, or install a different ruler, or take back a throne that was usurped, or defend against invaders, etc. Addison reminds us that we don’t have to be philosophers, or even load a story down with overly philosophical language, in order to consider the morals and ethics of ruling while we care about the person becoming a ruler.
I love when a book convinces me to change my mind about something. That’s why I read and read widely. In this case, my first experience with this author wasn’t a positive one. A couple years later, a different book (and, let’s face it, a different me), and now I’m a fan. I want more. Write more books like this please. I don’t care if they are set in the world. Just write more.