The Goblin Emperor
by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette).
Tor Books 2014.
When readers whose judgement you trust recommend this novel and even go as far as re-reading it within a short space of time you know there is something special about it.
And yet what on the surface of it makes it outstanding? It’s fantasy, yes — the title suggests as much — and there’s worldbuilding, and there’s the disregarded child who’s an orphan, and there are seemingly unpronounceable names, everything in fact that screams at the lover of contemporary novels to pass over this book. And I too, who ordinarily enjoys fantasy, am one who tends to put a book back on the bookshop pile when faced with a cast list of — it feels like — thousands, all with alien names.
So I have to ask myself then why I found this such an unputdownable title, and then perhaps attempt to persuade you to give it a try.
First, I was intrigued with the name of the hero, who goes by the name of Maia. In our world Maia or Maya is a girl’s name, of ancient origin, so there was immediately a disjuncture as far as expectation went. We first meet Maia languishing away in some backwater, ill-treated by his supposed guardian, when a missive comes from the imperial court telling him his father and brothers have all died in an unfortunate accident and that he is now the rightful emperor. How will the young man — still in his late teens — cope with his sudden reversal of fortunes?
Secondly, despite this being fantasy, there is precious little magic in evidence — some dream prognostication, and one instance only of spell-casting. (That the inhabitants of this world happen to be elves and goblins is neither here nor there, just a distancing device since these are to all intents and purposes near enough humans.) Instead of full-blown magic what we have is a clever blend of steampunk elements (principally airships), aspects of crime thrillers (murders to solve) and a definite feel of historical fiction (the court has distinct echoes of Byzantium and Tsarist Russia, and of imperial Japan and China).
Our point of view is entirely that of Maia’s, even though the story is told in the third person. We always fear for his survival, and worry if the ingénue will ever become as ingenious and as wily in the ways of politics and diplomacy as he will need to be. Will he survive plots to usurp him or to assassinate him? Will he gain the trust of suspicious and prejudiced ministers? Will he ever adapt to the indignities of a seemingly pampered lifestyle? Will he have compassion for those less well off than himself? And will he uncover the truth behind his father’s death?
Katherine Addison’s worldbuilding is second to none. She has created a credible polity with customs, language and back history. While we may only have a basic sketch map to guide us around the Elflands, rest assured that most of the action takes place within the imperial palace. As for the complex hierarchy of the court, a Listing of Persons, Places, Things, and Gods forms a useful appendix. Sadly, for those who have become entranced with this world, the author has confirmed that “No. There will be no direct sequel.” In a way, that’s only right, for where would one go with a novel that is, for its type, near enough perfect?
Finally, one always hopes with fantasies that they don’t end up as complete tragedies. A hint comes with a plot strand concerning the building of a bridge over a major river in the Elflands, which Maia is inclined to favour against the advice of his council. An old title from Ancient Rome, one which was later adopted by the medieval Popes, was pontifex. This literally means ‘bridge-builder’ and assumed two significances. First of all it indicated authority for the construction and maintenance of bridges over the River Tiber in classical times; it also suggested that the holder of this office was a conduit between the gods and humankind. In Maia’s case (as well as in modern parlance) a person who is able to successfully build bridges between opposing views is one who is of great worth.
All through The Goblin Emperor we hope against hope that this will prove the case with Maia. And, in the interesting times in which we now live, one hopes the same, too, will apply here and now.
Repost of review first published 11th November 2016: the author has in fact this year published a sort-of sequel, The Witness for the Dead, which I intend to review soon.