Friday, May 09, 2014

The Goblin Emporer: A Review

A few weeks ago I finally finished with revisions to my dissertation, and rewarded myself with a read of The Goblin Emporer, the first book published under the name of Katherine Addison (which is really the pen-name for Sarah Monette, accomplished spec fic author).

Not since reading Lev Grossman's The Magicians have I experienced such pure undiluted reading enjoyment; I was thrilled on every page that this book even existed, and that Addison is a young writer so that I, perhaps, had much more to look forward to.

One of the reasons The Goblin Emporer is so enjoyable is that the world Addison describes is jewel-like in its uniqueness and detail. In the elvish kingdom of Ethuveraz, airships cruise the skies (and sometimes crash), rivers are bridged with retractable bridges, and clockmakers craft fine timepieces for their rulers. Tea ceremonies and dances and imperial funerals are so tightly scripted that they run like the aforementioned clockwork. Meticulously-planned public appearances and elaborate ceremonies hem in the world of Maia, our protagonist, the half-goblin heir to the elvish throne after an airship disaster kills his estranged father and brothers.

These aren't Tolkien's elves and goblins, though. Addison's world (reflecting, perhaps, Monette's background in Renaissance literature) is, in many ways, indistinguishable from a human society. Elves are fairer, with finer features, than goblins--and something's different about their ears, natch. Maia's racial difference is marked, primarily, by his skin color. But Addison's aren't inherently noble, or wise, or magical, or immortal, just as the goblins aren't inherently stupid, noseless, warty, or evil. The elves and their interactions with the visiting goblin king, the Great Avar of Barizhan, reminded me of nothing so much as one of those "classy" (read: snobby) European kingdoms--the French, perhaps, or the Germans--treating with a Russian tsar or a Hungarian king.

And the book is almost wholly devoid of magic. There is one characters who seems to be able to commune with the dead, but all of that work happens off-screen, as it were. The whole narrative includes only one spell, a defensive measure against a potential assassin, which gets cast by one of Maia's bodyguards. But the narration rushes by this detail and focuses in on Maia's shock and fear at his assassination attempt. If it weren't that every character was either a goblin or an elf--two races whose literary heritage is inextricably entwined with the concept of fantasy--this could have been a story about human politics. It's a lot like watching an episode of House of Cards set in a Renaissance kingdom. (If that reading the preceding sentence gives you a happy, please read this book. And also, call me.)

Except that Frank Underwood is no Maia. Because Maia is the fucking best. Until Maia, I had never read such a tender-hearted, honest, good character that I didn't, at some level, find unbelievable. (Think Esther Summerson from Bleak House--I love Dickens, but gag me with a spoon every time she talks). Poor, downtrodden Maia has been shelved in some backwater county of Ethuveraz, looked after by his abusive cousin Setheris. His reaction to authority is not rebellion but a withdrawal, a development of his inward self which Setheris's treatment cannot touch.

When he becomes emporer, does Maia go mad with power and order his former oppressor tortured? No. While Addison's portrayal is frank--Maia has very realistic impulses to hurt Setheris, to punish him--he fights with himself on these impulses, eventually finding a way to keep himself away from the bad memories that Setheris conjures without ruining his cousin's life. Maia's adventures with romance are similarly nuanced. The first time he sees a female elf in eight years, he almost slobbers on himself. He ends up infatuated with an opera singer; his obvious desire for her makes him the butt of jokes in his court.  But he doesn't order her to warm his bed, although he knows he could, because he understands that it would be an embarrassing experience for both of them. In all of his dealings with people who challenge him, Maia lets compassion rule him.

How is such a paragon of compassion (and a teenager, at that--Maia is 18 when he takes the throne) realistic? Because Addison shows Maia thinking through his feelings. The inwardness he developed after years of isolation and unhappiness allows for a very realistic conflict between Maia's impulses and his higher nature.

The novel doesn't end in flowers and rainbows. Maia doesn't develop a cadre of chums with whom he can confide when the crown gets too heavy, and he doesn't marry the sexy opera singer. But he makes some good decisions for the country, and begins to build a legacy he'll be proud to leave. And while responsibility has isolated him as effectively as ever, he realizes the relationships he does have, although they can't really be called friendships, are enough to nurture him as he moves forward.

Extra goody-good bits:

  • Addison's political landscape is so fully-realized that, although these issues never take center stage, her book touches on LGBT issue, women's rights, and worker's rights.
  • Also, her language-building rocks. No cheesy half-baked names for things here. And there's a glossary in the back with partial grammatical explanations. Love it. 

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