Thoughts on The Goblin Emperor
Last year social media was abuzz with love for Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, a fantasy novel written by Sarah Monette under a new pseudonym. In fact, there was so much buzz that I doubted I would ever read it because I frequently don’t do well with non-romance novels that are beloved by my romance-reading buddies. I was tempted, despite the 18-year-old protagonist and the elves & goblins setting, because the emphasis on politics and court intrigue was right up my alley. Still, my TBR was huge, I was on a book-buying fast, and I was enjoying what I had queued up in my near reading future.
Then the Hugo nominations furor hit, and I was struck by the fact that the two non-slate novel nominees were The Goblin Emperor and Ancillary Sword. I’d been underwhelmed by the first half of Ancillary Justice and put it aside but was still mulling why, and now another book I had ambivalence about was nudging me to read it. So I decided to give it a try.
I read the first chapter and found it well written but not particularly engaging. It takes a huge suspension of disbelief to accept that the ruler of a nation whose sovereigns are endangered regularly through that nation’s history would let his entire line of succession (at least the part he approved) ride with him in the same vehicle. But if he hadn’t, our hero wouldn’t have stumbled onto the Throne of Elfland (not the real name of the nation but Addison makes up lots of names and they’re even harder to spell than they are to remember). I lowered my eyebrow and decided to keep reading. And I’m glad I did. I didn’t love this book the way so many people do, but it has many features to recommend it.
I found The Goblin Emperor to be a warm, fluffy, blanket of a book. It was never particularly surprising; the good people stayed good, the villains were who you expected them to be, and the hero and his immediate circle were unfailingly decent, honorable, and admirable. Maia, the accidental emperor, was sweet and obviously sympathetic, but in some ways it was too obvious. I would have to have an even harder heart than I do not to be moved by his plight, but it felt like something I accepted as part of the story rather than something that reached out to me and gradually brought to me care deeply for his fate. His problems were external, rather than the result of the internal struggles of a complicated personality, with the exception of his reflexive self-loathing, and even that dissipated as he realized that he was not that unusual, he just had an awful, awful father who made innocent victims pay for his own poor decisions.
The writing is smooth and the world is immersive. This is a type of world-building that doesn’t really do much for me, because it’s about creating mood and atmosphere more than engaging the reader’s brain and making her grapple with ideas. There are airships and clockmakers and fantastical bridges, but they’re just sort of there, and the relationships between people matter more than anything else. We have a parliamentary system out of early modern Britain and a court life in an AU Versailles. Yes, the elves are white and the goblins are black, but except for reactionary parts of the elven ruling class, no one seems to care that much. Of course it’s bad for Maia that some of his closest family members are part of that that reactionary wing, but it’s mostly the bad bits of the family, not the ones who turn out to be on his side.
There’s no plot to speak of. Maia learns to be Emperor, to value himself (which is easier once the people who hate him are dispatched), and to gain in confidence. He may be bright, he’s clearly not learned (again, not his fault), but he has good and smart people around him who want to help him. Given that hereditary rulers are the ultimate crapshoot, Maia is your dream candidate, because all the things that are wrong with him are fixable. His soul, which you can’t engineer, is golden.
All this wonderfulness means that there’s not much tension. There are mysteries large and small, there are mistakes made, there are moments of embarrassment where we flinch along with Maia. But the general trajectory is upward. Maia’s hardest decisions are painful to make and he suffers for them, but they’re not difficult in terms of the choices.
So if there’s not much plot and not much tension, what makes the book a good read? Two things. First, the language and writing style are very high quality indeed. They are elegant without tipping into excessive lyricism, and there are some cracking passages, especially the party and dinner scenes in which the more worldly characters take center stage. In those sections we get all the complexity and verve, often through sparkling dialogue, that is absent in Maia’s internal monologues and expository sequences. Second, the depiction of imperial, courtly politics is consistently insightful, in particular the monotony-punctuated-by-crisis regimen of even the highest government servants.
The book feels like a mashup of Tolkien and Heyer, with some Dunnett and Dumas thrown in (think The Foundling meets The Man in the Iron Mask in Middle Earth). Putting Maia at the center of this intense court society makes for a more restful read in some ways, because Maia can’t be as enmeshed in intrigue as the veterans are. And most readers are so tired of political shenanigans (and so much worse), that a story narrated by an unlearned but thoroughly decent outsider is a welcome fairy tale.
But it is a fairy tale. This is the political story we want to believe can be true, especially today. I read right through to the end, but when I closed the book the fairy tale stayed within it. Because Maia isn’t real, or at least the Maia of this book is at most a fleeting figure. Powerful, effective emperors do not stay naive, no matter how good they may be. Some of the most honorable men of our time were also unceasing strategists, because they had to be in order to achieve their goals. Maia’s bridge-building solved one problem but it will have created many new ones, if the historical record is anything to go by.
I think this book works best if you’re invested in Maia and in the relationships he forms. Despite all the politics, it’s not a political novel at all. And despite the elves and goblins, it’s basically an AU pastiche of a bloody and conflictual period of history. Maia’s essential goodness helps us ignore the fact that he is, after all, an Emperor. And Empires are not noted for their benevolence, no matter how well-intentioned their leaders.