The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

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.

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    • Lee on June 1, 2015 at 1:24 am
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    Just curious — is the “sparkling moment” you refer to above the dinner party with the Marquess Lanthevel? That scene certainly did make a difference in the way some of the movers and shakers thought of Maia.

  1. Yes, that’s it.

    My physical copy is elsewhere, so I am working from Google Books, but I think this is the turning point I had in mind:

    “Ha!” said Pashivar with such force that Maia was not sure whether it was an exclamation or a laugh. “If Edrehasivar wished to start throwing people in the Esthoramire — or, better yet, the Nevenamire — we are not where he would start.” He gave Maia a sidelong look that was angry and mocking, but not entirely unkind. “Are we?”
    “No,” said Maia. “But we could always change our mind.”
    There was a moment of arrested silence, and Maia worried that he had judged Pashavar incorrectly; then Pashavar and Lanthevel burst out laughing, and Pashavar saluted Maia with his glass

    “Arrested” is a particularly apt word for the silence, given the subject of the conversation.

    In general, before that evening the grandees of the realm, even the ones inclined to be well disposed toward Maia, had worked mostly around him and only warily with him. After that, I got the sense that they would accept him more, see him as a person and a young peer, not merely an imperial cipher.

    What did you think?

    • Lee on June 1, 2015 at 9:10 am
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    I hadn’t thought of it in exactly those terms; what I mostly saw was one more link in a long chain of Maia gaining self-confidence and realizing that (1) he doesn’t have to constantly placate everyone around him, and (2) snarky humor can be acceptable.

    Actually, the bit of conversation I thought you might be talking about was where Pashavar talks about the difference between breaking laws and breaking rules, and that the willingness to occasionally break a rule makes Maia a better emperor. Certainly that’s the point at which Pashavar is (however reluctantly) convinced to stop blocking the presentation about the bridge.

    Addison has stated in an interview that she doesn’t intend to write any sort of follow-on to this. IMO that means that all the filling-in-the-blanks work is an open field for the fanfic writers, and there are already a number of good stories over on AO3. I would love to see something novel-length set in Barizhan!

  2. I can see and agree with your (1) and (2) as well. I think I remember the exchange about breaking laws versus breaking rules; it’s after the dinner party, isn’t it? That’s definitely a part of the continuity of Maia growing enough to survive and govern, perhaps even govern well.

    • Lee on June 3, 2015 at 7:27 pm
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    It’s later in the dinner party, after the exchange you mentioned.

    Another thing that I thought was relevant is that when they talk about the breakdown of negotiations between the Ethuveraz and the Nazhmorhathveras, it’s Maia who asks whether those negotiations were being made by the current Witness for Foreigners or the previous one (who was executed for gross malfeasance, including taking bribes, while Maia was still living with his mother), and everybody else locks up like a broken clockwork. And I was thinking, “Oh, SNAP!”

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