#WitchWeek2021 Day 3: Intrigue in the Elflands

Map of Ethurevaz, after Sarah Monette

This year’s host looks at a (so far) two-book series by fantasy author Sarah Monette, here writing as Katherine Addison

Intrigue in the Elflands:
Katherine Addison’s Ethuveraz
Chris Lovegrove

Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor was a near instant hit when it was published back in 2014, but the reasons of its success weren’t easily discernable at first sight: nothing much seemed to happen, there was a lot about courtly etiquette, a murder mystery was solved — off-camera as it were — and the protagonist initially appeared to have little or no agency.

Seven years later a sort of sequel, The Witness for the Dead, was set in the same world — Ethuveraz, the Elflands — except now in a provincial city with a different though equally diffident protagonist, threaded through with multiple strands and a key murder mystery to solve. As with its predecessor it’s hard at first sight to work out how its low-key approach might hold readers’ attentions and appreciation, but hold them it largely does.

Another prominent aspect to both novels, one that is pertinent to this year’s Witch Week theme, is the incidence of conspiracies, treason and plots: states like Ethuveraz and Barizhan, inhabited respectively by elves and goblins, are no less susceptible to these intrigues than those with humans; these being gaslamp fantasies — fictions set in some fog-shrouded late Victorian metropolis or other — Ethuveraz in particular could just as easily be a country on the fringes of Europe as in another world.

In The Goblin Emperor young Maia is the titular character, though in truth he is half-goblin and half-elven, with darker skin than the majority elven population. He has arrived on the hereditary throne by default, his father and step-brothers all having been assassinated in an airship explosion, and suffers prejudice because he’s not only illegitimate by birth but also because of his mixed heritage, and because he’s been brought up ignorant of courtly rituals and expectations.

The novel therefore is a portrait of a young individual thrust into a role for which he is unprepared, having to cope with hostility, suspicion and the fear of assassination as he negotiates the tricky grounds of diplomacy with marriage to a foreign bride, antagonistic elements at court, and expectations of his committing several faux pas. And there is the anxiety arising from not knowing who exactly was responsible for the untimely deaths of his male relatives.

Here is where he has to call in the services of Thara Celehar, a minor cleric who suffers from similar questions of status as does Maia. Thara is a Witness for the Dead, an investigator able to pick up clues from the final thoughts and experiences of the deceased even after much time has passed following their demise. Will Thara be able to establish the truth of that fatal incident and reveal the perpetrators?

Thara also appears in The Goblin Emperor sequel, narrating his own story. After his work for the Emperor he has survived a potential personal scandal by being appointed to a post in an obscure provincial town, where he continues his calling to the best of his abilities. But he too in his turn is beset by petty jealousies, outright hostility, suspicion, and the mortal dangers of having to deal with the victims of ghouls, and is forced to exonerate himself in a trial by ordeal. Here the danger is not from enemies of the state but from fraudsters, desperate relatives, a serial killer and an opportune murderer. And harking back to The Goblin Emperor is the occasion when a flammable airship disastrously explodes, killing many workers. Is it an accident or is a nefarious plot to blame for the fatalities?

Though the two titles can be treated as standalones they have much in common apart from a couple of shared characters and shady intrigues. First there is prejudice based on fear, envy or intolerance: whether difference is indicated by mixed heritage, being ingénue, sexual preference, or even demeanour, it can be seized on as an excuse to at least embarrass the victim or to perpetrate something more vile. Secondly, there is the echo of the first novel’s courtly intrigue in the sequel with episodes related to an opera company staging productions featuring the intrigues of shady nobility.

Thirdly, both the main characters try to be true to themselves, to maintain their integrity by upholding principles by which they define themselves, whatever the apparent cost to their physical and mental health. They are rare examples in fantasy of protagonists who aren’t filled with existential angst, aren’t the Chosen One, aren’t prone to making major mistakes that are only introduced to accelerate the plot; they are the quiet ones who plod on, doing what’s required to the best of their ability.

It may seem therefore that Treason and Plot aren’t the leitmotifs in these literary compositions, sounding the clarion call against the rumble of accompanying sounds; they are instead the ground bass to two character-driven narratives, betrayal and conspiracy the background noises against which the Maia and Thara themes play steadily and quietly.


As well as writing this blog Chris Lovegrove passes his time looking forward to live music-making as a pianist and dreaming of what it might be like being a full-time writer—if only he could settle down to working at it.

9 thoughts on “#WitchWeek2021 Day 3: Intrigue in the Elflands

  1. Pingback: #WitchWeek2021 Day 3 | Lizzie Ross

    1. If you let words like ‘goblin’ and ‘elf’ wash over you, Sandra, and take preternatural intuition for granted, these could easily be historical novels set in some fin-de-siècle Byzantine state you’d not previously heard of, so that all your interest was on the interplay of characters with their own agendas. If you like 19th-century Russian novels you might also take a shine to these two!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you right, Alicia, the apparent lack of ‘agency’ is often just that — apparent — when remaining steadfast may be exactly what’s called for in certain circumstances rather than going out there, all guns blazing.

      Like

  2. I keep meaning to read these – like you with Tam Lin! Now I have even more incentive. I also appreciate the quieter type of book / character, in our noisy world.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I’m more than a mite tired (I quite like a bit of litotes!) of all these stories and, particularly, action films which end in an orgy of explosive destruction—we need more of the calm, understated, self-effacing types who save the world … or at least their small part of it. Hope you try at least one of these, Lory!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Superb spotlight on the characterizations and the connecting plot points. I just recently read Witness, and loved it and hoping there will be a sequel very soon. (I might even say, I liked Witness more than Goblin Emperor.) And It’s great that my read almost co-incided with this post. Happy #WitchWeek2021!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much, glad you appreciated the connections I tried to make! I’ll have a proper look at your review presently, from a quick glance it looked good. 🙂

      Like

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