Wasn’t this great fun? The front flap of The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison, summarizes the set-up: “A half-goblin, the youngest son of the emperor, has lived his entire life in exile, far form the imperial court and the deadly intrigue that surrounds it. But when his father and three half-brothers, who are heirs to the throne ahead of him, die in an airship crash, Maia is summoned to assume his birthright and take his place as the only surviving heir.”
Elves and goblins, and other races less carefully defined, share a landmass divided among numerous territories. The empire that Maia inherits and must try to rule is called the Ethuveraz, the Elflands. Most of the novel’s action takes place in the court where the emperor lives and the realm’s high nobles vie for power. Who is a friend? Who is a foe? Who might be both? Maia has to learn to survive and to rule and to grow to adulthood, all at once, in public, under pressure and in danger.
Addison does not to give readers a map of either the empire or the court, instead sketching her imagined geographies, macro and micro, through her characters’ speech, impressions, and recollection. This reinforces the sense that the court is the center of the world, as it certainly is for Maia. Like him, readers must figure out the lay of the land for themselves. The approach also helps to create the feeling of layers in the world, and supports Addison’s play with insider-outsider status made concrete in the locations she chooses for the novel’s actions.
For Maia is in practically every sense an outsider: he is only half-elf, issue of a political marriage that his father the emperor soon regretted. After his mother dies when Maia is eight (ten years before the novel begins), he is exiled to a dismally swampy corner of the realm, cooped up with an abusive guardian who has likewise fallen from favor. He is taught very little, and certainly not the details a future ruler would be expected to know. He is religiously observant in a court that preserves the forms of obeisance to the gods, but has largely discarded them otherwise. He is young, just eighteen as the novel begins. And Maia is much darker-hued than practically anyone else he comes in contact with at the court, at least initially. Addison keeps her empire’s rulers male, although there is a consistent thread in the novel about the role of female persons (I hesitate to use the words “women” and “men” when speaking of non-humans) within the Ethuveraz.
Maia has to grow up fast, or, as his former guardian puts it, “Thou shalt be a puppet dancing at the end of [Lord Chancellor] Uleris’s strings, and to a tune of his choosing. And thy nineteenth birthday may very well see thee dead.” The “thee” and “thou” are part of how Addison alludes to the language the characters in her world are speaking — one that retains the distinction between a formal and informal “you” that has largely fallen away in modern English, and one that uses a formal “I” that is only seen in English as the royal “we.” (This will seem a lot less foreign to readers of many other languages.) Addison is consistent with using in-world titles, and with the ways that names decline according to gender, number, and other factors. Both of these tendencies helped to reinforce the depth of the world that the characters are acting in. For readers who may feel lost from time to time, there is a list of names, as well as a very brief note on language at the back of the book. I didn’t discover them until I was about halfway through, and seldom checked afterward to make sure I was right about who was who.
There is a lot of the theater in The Goblin Emperor. Much of the action advances through dialogue, and Addison’s facility with spoken language makes it a delight to read. As emperor, Maia’s title is “Serenity,” and everyone is required to address him as such. One of the pleasures of reading the book’s dialogue is hearing the different emotions various characters put into the title, which come across quite clearly even though Addison almost never uses adverbs to indicate a character’s tone. The Goblin Emperor also has a five-act structure, a nearly Aristotelian unity of setting, and a pace like a night at the theater. As in a good court drama, or indeed an Elizabethan history, the stakes are the throne and the ruler’s life, along with the destiny of the empire.
The story of the empire’s politics and the question of whether Maia will survive long enough to grow up are intimately entwined. The implied threat voiced in the first chapter and quoted above seems to recede into the background, to a point where I eventually wondered whether this story would simply be about Maia learning what he needed to learn so that he might rule. But the forces, and the persons, who killed off the previous emperor and heirs are still at court, and still capable of attack. Addison does the politics well: she shows how and why people come to have different views, how far they are prepared to go, how people are inconsistent, and some of the different ways that personal relations can affect political choices. The factions and divisions are neither simple nor simplistic, even if they do not match the depth of real politics. Addison has found a good balance between maneuvers that are complex enough to be interesting but not so Byzantine as to lose readers in a mass of fictional detail. There is a sparkling moment later in the book where Maia is admitted to the big leagues of power, a realm to which his title did not necessarily grant him admission. It may not be enough to save him from his enemies, but it is a sign of his growth.
Addison touches on much more than I have taken the time here to address: Maia’s education, the meaning of friendship, the role of tradition, the difficulty of change, love, marriage, duty, sources of strength and means of solace. I wondered early on whether this wasn’t an Obama novel — a new ruler who is black and inexperienced coming to the capital with a will to enact change amongst entrenched and hidden enemies. It’s one interesting way of looking at the novel, a way that highlights the parallels among the institutions of the Ethuveraz government as well.
One last thing that I liked about The Goblin Emperor is that it didn’t end with an obvious sequel on its way. There are many stories that Addison could set in this world, and they would be a pleasure to read, but this one stands on its own. I enjoyed it immensely.