Review: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Published in 2014; 446 pages; ★★★★★

“You cannot keep change from happening, Lord Pashavar,” Maia said sympathetically, and Lord Pashavar flapped a hand at him to get on with things.

Summary:
A vividly imagined fantasy of court intrigue and dark magics in a steampunk-inflected world, by a brilliant young talent.

The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an “accident,” he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.

Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.

Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend… and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne – or his life.

This exciting fantasy novel, set against the pageantry and color of a fascinating, unique world, is a memorable debut for a great new talent.

(From Goodreads)

The Goblin Emperor is… an experience.  It’s the kind of book that’s so wholly absorbing that it becomes a struggle to review, because no matter how I try to articulate how I loved it, I feel like I just can’t do it justice.  Additionally, Addison flouts many of the fantasy genre’s conventions of plot structure and character relationships, so it doesn’t have the same sort of ‘hook’ that many of its companions on the shelf do, and… I almost feel like all I can say is, “Just take my word for it and read this.”  But this book deserves more, so I’m gonna try to do better than that.  Bear with me.

On reflection, a lot of the things that stood out to me most about this book come down to one aspect:  Addison’s deft, delicate use of details.  The first one I noticed was linguistic: she uses English’s forgotten familiar-second-person pronoun, ‘thou’, in its proper place.  This allows her to show status and relationship between characters subtly, and also adds depth to her worldbuilding from the very first chapter.  Indeed, the use of language frames the story as if it were written in the tongue of the Ethuveraz, and only translated to English after the fact – it’s a fascinating effect, and had me recommending the book to friends after maybe 20 pages.

That attention to detail also serves as a great case study in how to ensure every part of a story serves more than one purpose.  Addison spends a great deal of time describing the Imperial wardrobe Maia wears once he arrives at court, and this could have just been set dressing if it weren’t for the fact that these descriptions also illuminate Maia’s internal struggle with his new role.  The weight of an Emperor’s rings on his hands conveys his anxiety; the complicated process of dressing and undressing underscores his fundamental loss of privacy and solitude.  To someone more comfortable in the Imperial court, its expansive audience chambers might seem grand and imposing, but Maia focuses on how cold and echoing they are.  Everything about this book is rich, layered, and complex, like fine chocolate revealing hints of fruit in its flavor as it melts in your mouth.

The political subplots of The Goblin Emperor are similarly rich and complicated.  In fact, reading this book helped me put my finger on why I find some stories of ‘political intrigue’ less satisfying than others: the question of objective.  The most obvious objective for someone who wants political power is to sit at the top of the heap – but especially in fantasy settings, this is often presented as incredibly straightforward.  Everyone wants to kill the ruler, take their crown, and have done with it… and there’s really no intrigue to it, nothing complicated at all.  By contrast, The Goblin Emperor and TV’s The West Wing both present situations in which one person is secure at the top of the chain of command, and everyone else must finesse the system to achieve their goals, and that is what I’m looking for when I want to read about politics.  Bargains, relationships, competing interests, long- and short-term goals and strategies: that’s what makes politics interesting!

“He had known of the concordat – half cease-fire, half alliance – maintained between the Parliament, Corazhas, and Judiciate, supporting the emperor between them like the legs of a fragile and argumentative tripod, but he had never had more than the narrowest crack of a view of them.  Now, suddenly, he was surrounded by – almost drowning in – a brilliantly colored panorama:  the clamoring House of Commons, the disdainful House of Blood, still resentful all these centuries later that the had to negotiate with men who were merel elected; the delicate internecine feuds of the judiciars, no fewer than eleven of whom had sent letters by the pneumatic, each with language more impenetrable than the last; the seven Witnesses of the Corazhas, the advisers of the emperor, none of whom had sent anything in his own person except the most correct and restrained of condolences and good wishes, but whose secretaries had created a deluge of vellum and paper.  Then there were the lesser lords and courtiers and merchants and civil servants… and on top of this madness, the emperor was supposed to keep his balance?”

Obviously, this isn’t to everyone’s taste, but personally I just reveled in it.  I love politics, and I love fantasy, but never before have I seen those two topics blended so gloriously.

In addition to its fantastically complicated political system, the Ethuveraz also had a culture I found fascinating.  Its religion, economic foundations, technological level, and social norms feel believable and well-developed, and Addison manages to do something that many authors struggle with:  she writes a sexist, racist, classist, and homophobic society in a way that feels deliberate and considered, not just like a transplant of the author’s social defaults.  Characters realistically struggle with these issues, and from multiple angles; it is clear that every experience is unique, and dependent on an intersection of factors.  Maia, as someone who is denigrated for being half goblin, has a unique perspective; the discrimination he faces seems to make him more sympathetic to those around him who also don’t fit perfectly into society.

At its core, The Goblin Emperor is a story about relationships.  Maia starts from a point of isolation:  his loving mother dead when he was a child, his father distant, raised by a bitter, abusive cousin.  Even as he struggles with the weight of becoming emperor, he finds support and friendship in the people around him, for the first time in his adult life.  There’s something so deeply optimistic about this – that despite the politicking, and the multiple plots to get Maia removed from power, he manages to build a found family around himself simply by being considerate and well-meaning.  It doesn’t come easily to him, but it’s beautifully and deftly handled.

Personally, I’ve always loved the tropes of the fantasy genre, but even I can get weary of them from time to time.  The Goblin Emperor was a lovely reminder that all that magic, wonder, and secondary-world richness can frame an entirely new sort of story, not just the same (often delightful) quests and grand battles.  It’s absorbing, engaging, and simultaneously soothing; it’s rich, and I would love to read more stories set in this world or featuring these characters, but at the same time it’s a neatly self-contained story.  This would be a perfect winter read – curl up with a blanket, a cup of your hot drink of choice, and just let yourself be drawn in.  You won’t regret it.

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