Thursday, August 13, 2015

Review - The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Short review: Maia unexpectedly becomes emperor of the elven kingdom of Ethuveraz despite the fact that he is unprepared, uneducated, and a half-goblin.

Returned from exile
Unready to be ruler
Must learn on the job

Full review: Imagine you were an outcast, shunned for both your heritage and for the fact that the head of the government despised you. Imagine you were condemned to live in a remote backwater under the authority of a guardian who abused you and seemingly despised you. Imagine you woke up one day to discover that relatives you didn't really know, and in some cases didn't like, had died and you were now wealthy and powerful beyond your wildest dreams. Imagine that this is quite possibly the most dangerous thing that could happen to you. This is the story of Maia in The Goblin Emperor.

Maia is the half-goblin fourth son of Varenechibel IV, the ruling emperor of the elvish land of Ethuveraz. In addition to being despised on account of being half-goblin in an elvish society, Maia is also disfavored because his father's marriage to his mother was something of a loveless disaster. As a result, after his mother's death, Maia was banished to a far-away estate in a dismal part of the country to be raised by Sethris, a distant relative who had angered the emperor and earned his ire. Maia's life changes when he is awakened in the middle of the night to receive a messenger who informs him that his father and all of his older brothers have died, leaving Maia as the only adult male heir to the throne of the kingdom. In just a handful of pages, Maia is thrown into the deep end of the Untheileneise Court and has no choice but to learn to swim or drown trying.

In large part, The Goblin Emperor is about the difficulty of exerting power and authority from a position of weakness - and not merely a position of weakness, but also of ignorance. When Maia arrives at court, he is at a serious disadvantage as his enforced exile has left him knowing no one, and the neglectful guardian has provided him with a relatively poor education. While Maia knows the basics of how to behave in polite society, he is woefully ignorant of the politics of the nation he must now lead and the history that underlies those politics. He is also quite poorly educated on a myriad of other subjects that one would normally expect a member of the aristocracy to be well-versed in: Art, literature, law, and so on. And Maia is painfully aware of the deficiencies in his education, making him self-conscious about his ignorance and, due to his painfully shy and awkward nature, unwilling to ask questions that might expose him to ridicule for his lack of knowledge.

Despite the fact that almost all of the novel takes place within the imperial palace, or perhaps because of it, the story is interlaced with intrigue and fraught with danger. This is not a story in which armies march across the battlefield and bold men engage in feats of derring-do. It is rather a story in which paying too much attention to the wrong person at a party or seating the wrong dinner guests next to one another will have consequences that will make a favorable political alliance impossible. It is a story in which knowing who is related to who and what happened thirty years ago to create animosity between two families is of paramount importance in understanding and unraveling the thorny political web of the present. And Maia's problem is that at the outset he simply doesn't know any of these things. He doesn't know who to trust, or even who to choose to serve in the most personal and critical roles of his household. He doesn't even know which of his own relatives he can rely upon not to try to stab him in the back when he is eating breakfast.

At the outset of the novel, Addison throws dozens of long and complicated names and titles at the reader, many of which are very similarly spelled. Sorting this out is something of a headache for the reader as it is very difficult to keep straight who is who, until one realizes that this is exactly the sort of disorientation that Maia feels. By employing this device, Addison manages to create a sense of unease and discomfort in the reader that reflects the unease and discomfort experienced by her protagonist. As the novel goes on, these names seem to become easier - in some cases because the names are more familiar, but in many cases because the names have been shortened from their most formal iterations, and in still others simply because the names are easier. This is a brilliant literary trick, and if Addison didn't mean to do this intentionally, it is the most fortuitous accident I have seen in a book in a long while.

The book is primarily a character piece about Maia's growth from an unsure adolescent thrust onto center stage to an unsure adolescent who has been sitting on center stage long enough to know who the other actors are. To this end, Addison surrounds Maia with a collection of characters to play off of including allies such as his personal secretary Csevet, and enemies, such as the power hungry Lord Chancellor Uleris. Some of these characters seem just a little too good to be true - Csevet is one of the very first characters from court that Maia meets and he turns out to be both an effective and loyal personal aide while Eiru Berenar is almost ridiculously altruistic in his dealings with the new emperor. On the other hand, characters who become Maia's allies are pretty much required for the story to actually work - if every hand was turned against Maia then there would have been no story as he would not have survived on the throne for any appreciable length of time. Even so, one of the very few weaknesses of the book is that, with one notable exception, every character Maia chooses to place his trust in turns out to be essentially completely loyal and honest. In short, all of the villainous characters in the book are pretty much outed as villains pretty quickly, and almost all of the loyal (or at least law-abiding) characters are portrayed as such from their first appearance.

The essential nature of the story is focused on Maia's journey, and he is an interesting character struggling to remain true to himself in a position that threatens to consume him. Even exerting authority when it is clear that he must do so proves to be a difficult task for Maia, as the need to mete out sometimes harsh justice is at odds with his fundamentally congenial nature. Throughout the story, one senses that Maia is often in danger of becoming much like his despotic and cruel father, driven by the needs of his office and the brutal nature of the courtly politics, but he is able to hold back just enough to remain faithful to his moral core. And it is in this struggle that the influence of Maia's goblin mother and his long exile serve to set him apart. Because of his somewhat relatively downtrodden upbringing, Maia can empathize with those who are outside of the power structure of the Untheilenese Court, a trait that brings him into conflict both with tradition and the power brokers of the kingdom, but which also makes him a sympathetic and interesting character to the reader. The ability to understand the needs and desires of those outside of his station give him an almost unique perspective which drives much of the plot of the book, and raises it above the ordinary.

One might also criticize The Goblin Emperor on the grounds that the fantasy elements in the book are fairly slight, and other than the details of the Untheileneise Court, the world-building is fairly limited. Other than the fact that the characters are all described as elves and goblins, the only real fantasy elements are a very modest use of magic, the existence of airships, and the heavy implication that some priests can communicate with the dead. Not only that, the distinction between goblins and elves is fairly poorly defined, as it is made quite clear that the two races can (and do) interbreed quite easily, and in some areas of the world do so quite often. Elves and goblins are not treated as two separate races so much as they are presented as one race split by prejudice based on skin pigmentation, the implications of which are almost certainly intentional.

Beyond the light fantasy elements, the world within which the book takes place is only vaguely defined. Other than the elf kingdom of Ethuveraz, the only other nation mentioned is the neighboring goblin nation of Barizhan. Ethuveraz' other border is apparently occupied by nomadic tribes of undefined racial stock, but other than that, there are only the vaguest hints that there might be a wider world. Even Barizhan is only described in rather ambiguous terms, although there are some indications that despite being looked down upon as a nation of uncultured boors by the elves that the goblin kingdom is more prosperous economically and substantially more progressive socially than their hidebound and stuffy elvish cousins. But all of these elements are only nebulously suggested in the text, leaving much of the world at best sketchily defined.

Despite a handful of minor criticisms, The Goblin Emperor remains an excellent book. Combining an in-depth character study with the tension of deadly palace intrigue, the story details Maia's struggles to at first survive, and eventually to prosper in a role that he never expected to have to fill. With a story confined for the most part to the chambers and corridors of Untheileneise Court, the book could have felt claustrophobic and confining, and at times it does, but at others the scope of the tale expands as the powerful nobles of the court work the levers of power to far-reaching effect. Caught at the center of the web of power is Maia, attempting to do his best avoid being either trapped against his will, or swept aside by other, more ruthless individuals. In the end, the book seeks to paint the picture of a fundamentally moral but unprepared boy who reluctantly becomes emperor, and at the same time provide a tense backdrop of shifting political alliances and shadowy cabals plotting treason, and it succeeds spectacularly at both.

2014 Locus Award Winner for Best Fantasy Novel: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
2016 Locus Award Winner for Best Fantasy Novel: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

List of Locus Award Winners for Best Fantasy Novel

2015 Hugo Award Nominees
2015 Locus Award Nominees
2015 Nebula Award Nominees
2015 World Fantasy Award Nominees

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