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.
I bought this book on the strength that it was the pen name for Sarah Monette. I loved Monette’s The Doctrine of Labyrinths . Those are dark and I agree that her worldbuilding is immersive and she kind of flings you in there and doesn’t explain much. I can’t recall her stories much of a plot either. They always had an overarching theme and I thought her worlds and language were intuitive. The hype on this book has made it wait a bit to read it and it sounds a bit lighter than she’s used to writing. I’m glad you posted your thoughts on this book. Sounds like you enjoyed it for the most part.
That’s very much how I felt about this book; the worldbuilding is immersive but not complicated, if that makes sense. You get a terrific feel for the people and you read about food and dress in some detail, but the institutions are definitely in the background. I really did enjoy it, more than I expected to, and that’s a testament to her skill because if you’d told me I’d spend a morning reading about an 18YO finding himself, I wouldn’t have believed you. I think you’ll like it because it has the things you enjoy about Monette’s work, but with more optimism, I guess?
I really need to proof read before hitting send. Ugh and sorry.
No worries, this is such a bare-bones template that typos are inevitable. 😉
I think I’m more likely to pull this from my TBR now because I don’t feel so much pressure to looooove it. Reading books that “everyone” loves can be hard–too many expectations. So thanks!
You’re welcome! I felt as if I was reading YA, even though I knew I wasn’t; the language is pretty dense and there are a lot of hard-to-remember names and grammatical idiosyncracies. It’s not quite a made-up language but it’s definitely a made-up set of names and honorifics. I didn’t have too much trouble because I ignored a lot of the variations and went with the root words, and in context it was not hard to differentiate the characters. But Maia himself seems very YA, or at least what I cue off in YA.
The one thing I would criticize in terms of Maia’s goodness is that it gets conflated with simplicity. He sees people very straightforwardly, and while he recognizes cunning he doesn’t approve of or engage in it. And when the villains are punished in extreme or violent ways, it’s not *his* choice (despite being the emperor), it’s just how things have to happen. It’s a version of goodness I don’t find convincing, because I think even for truly good people, being good takes work and often requires making difficult, not just painful, decisions. I think it’s that aspect that makes it feel YA, even though the writing style and some supporting characters are complex.
I wondered from your review if it was YA. I came to the comments section to ask precisely that question. But it looks like it might be more appropriate for an NA crowd rather than a young person reading up to a YA.
That seems to be the consensus, but I think a young reader who was OK with a challenging vocabulary might get a lot out of it. I wrote more in a response to you below.
This is one of my favorite books of last year. It is on my keeper shelf, right next to Megan Whalen Turner’s Thief books.
It is kind of funny that you thought AU Versailles–my impression was AU Imperial China!
I don’t know how much fantasy you read, but I found it refreshing to read about a young, untried ruler who had to fumble his way to understanding the court and the politics. And there was no grand quest–hooray! and it is not the first of a three-book series–even bigger hooray!
Monette mentioned in an article (somewhere–I can’t find it right now) that she wanted to do a book where the main character was basically good and the tone was optimistic. And that she chose to use a pseudonym to differentiate Goblin Emperor from her other work (which is indeed darker)
ps i also loved Ancillary Justice and its sequel Ancillary Sword and I’m looking forward to Ancillary Mercy this October and I’m thrilled to learn that Leckie has signed a contract for a fourth book set in that universe (don’t know if the 4th book will feature Breq or not).
Long way of saying–give it another try.
The book felt very early modern European to me, with some sidelong references to Russia and the steppes. When I think imperial China I think Jeannie Lin or Guy Gavriel Kay, in terms of recent writers. I looked at a few posts by Monette after I finished and she referenced Versailles and Louis XIV, and the more I think about it, the more Dunnett-related the setting seems.
I can totally see the appeal of this kind of character in a standalone novel (double yay from me on the latter), and other readers who loved the book (and whom I also look to for suggestions) have mentioned it as well. In SFF I tend more toward the SF than the F side, although I’ve read my share of GRRM, GGK, Gaiman, Pratchett, CS Lewis, Neil Stephenson, and even some grimdark. But I’ve never read much dragon stuff, no MZB or McCaffrey or Auel or that strand of fantasy, and I can’t get through Tolkien for love nor money. (On the latter, I liked the movies a lot but even they weren’t enough to make the books readable.)
I will go back to Ancillary Justice, because after reading the Addison I have a better sense of what worked and didn’t for me (despite them being quite different books in many ways. And I do want to understand better what people are responding to, since the readers who love these books really, really love them.
I realize I left off my list (these are all favorites): Bujold’s Chalion series, Ginn Hale’s The Rifter, Diana Wynne Jones two Howl books, Inkheart, and quite a few others. I guess I read more Fantasy than I think. 😉
My copies of Bujold’s Chalion books are in the spot of honor on my keeper shelf. I think this is the 3rd copy of each of the mmpbs. I have the hardbacks on another bookcase and e copies permanently stored on my Nook (with back-up on my hard-drive). That’s not too obsessive, is it?
I think you have to read Tolkien at the right age or forget it. I first read LOTR in 1965-66 when the Ballantine paperbacks were released in the US. (Ah, the impressionable teen years!) And I’ve read it multiple time since. And most of my friends who are fans read the books as teens.
A lot of my current SF reading is space opera–especially Lee and Miller’s Liaden Universe stories.
Ah, I had missed Monette’s remarks re:Versailles. Okay, I can see it now.
I agree on the Tolkien, but sadly, my teen attempt did not take. I think it was because I was pretty allergic to all kinds of fantasy then. I had friends who were devoted to it and so I tried, but no dice
I like the whole series, but Paladin of Souls is one of my favorite books in any genre. So having multiple copies and formats seems completely sensible to me. 😉
I’m like you. I tried Tolkien as a teen also and it did not take. I read The Hobbit and it was ok, but I attempted The Fellowship of the Ring two or three times before finally giving up for good in my early 20s.
I was a big fantasy reader as an adolescent – I read the Narnia books, the Oz books, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books, E Nesbit, Stephan Donaldson, Anne McCaffrey, Charles de Lint, Ursula LeGuin and probably many more. But ugh. Couldn’t get into LotR – all of my fantasy reading, Tolkien loving friends had helpful tips about skipping over the boring parts or what not, but I felt SUCH freedom when I decided that Tolkien just wasn’t for me. And decades later I feel no regret at not finishing it.
Inkheart and the Howl books are YA. So then does Goblin have ideas and themes more complex than that?
I was talking about Fantasy books in general in my response to Barb, so I combined YA and adult books.
I don’t think the themes/ideas are more complex, it’s really the language. Bear in mind that I don’t have children, so I’m not speaking from practical experience, but I get the impression that when people are talking about these as being for an adult audience they’re talking about the vocabulary, etc. I read plenty of books in my early teens that I didn’t fully understand (Anna Karenina at 14? I definitely didn’t fully understand it). So to me it’s more about whether there are things a young reader would engage with and enjoy. I think that’s definitely the case. Maia is a very appealing central character. There are a couple of brief, violent events, one of which might be somewhat traumatic. But they’re integral to the plot and not drawn out.
My concern is with violence, sex, abuse, and other such adult themes that you don’t want a younger person exposed to. Vocab is less of a concern than themes. I should probably read it to reassure myself, but I’m not much of a fantasy reader, whereas Wee1 is very much a fantasy reader. I’ll see if she comes to it organically via word-of-mouth from her friends, else I’ll read it and see. Thank you for your thoughts on this.
I have this one since Janine reviewed it at DA , need to get to it soon :).
I do think you’ll enjoy it.
The funny thing is, I completely recognise all the things you describe that meant that you didn’t think it was the best book ever. Yes, there’s not much complexity in the characters; yes, goodness=simplicity here, absolutely. And yet, I absolutely loved it. I love complex, complicated characters, but for some reason, I didn’t need them here. I guess the warm fluffy blanket nature of it overpowered all the rest for me 🙂
I think that the reader knows she is in good hands throughout the book, and that makes a huge difference. Addison/Monette just does a terrific job in so many ways. She treats the reader as an intelligent partner, too. I can understand why people found the names and language difficult, but I totally disagree with the criticisms that it was slow and/or boring. The pacing went with the story, and I thought part of the point was to have the reader understand what daily life in a court would be like.
The only one of my visceral reading preferences (besides good writing) that this book hits is the court intrigue part, and yet I liked a lot of the other things about it. And sometimes we just want that warm fluffy blanket. 🙂
I, too, have Goblin Emperor on my TBR. Your comments about it remind me a little of my reaction to Radiance by Grace Draven. (That one isn’t a stand alone but there are other similarities.)
I liked Radiance very much – it’s charming and delightful but, the conflict was almost entirely external and there was little conflict in the romantic relationshp because Brishen and Ildiko were just so good and adaptable and wonderful (especially Ildiko). I loved them both and lapped the book up with a spoon but I questioned myself about it because I have had an opposite reaction to books for the exact same reason before. In the end, I put it down to a good story well told, engaging characters and plenty of external conflict, as well as the right reading mood (which is something that can make the world of difference in a reading experience and which the book itself has very little control over.) It turns out, sometimes I do want a book where the relationship is easy.
I think a good story, well told, with engaging characters is 90 percent of what we are all looking for.
@Cleo: It’s nice not to feel alone. 😉 I couldn’t even manage The Hobbit. I knew so many people who loved them, but it just didn’t happen. I think I finally gave my copies away. I thought about trying again when the LOTR films came out (TheHusband is a fan of both the movies and the books) but wisely decided to let sleeping hobbits lie. It wouldn’t have happened. Some things are just not for everyone.
I read Narnia, some of the Oz books, and some of the Mary Poppins books, I think. And Madeleine L’Engle of course. But my “fantasy” books were those set in the US or Europe in the 19thC. That was an exotic world to me!
I came here to catch up on your blog and found this terrific review. I’m glad you read The Goblin Emperor and found some things to appreciate even though you don’t love it. It is similar to a YA, and not just because of its emotional simplicity. Also because it is essentially a coming of age story.
And yes, it is totally a fairy tale. My husband wasn’t wowed by the book either; he called it “Too Pollyanna.” For me the book’s sweetness and simplicity was a big part of its appeal.
I related very much to Maia’s struggle with his anger at himself. You’re absolutely right that being good to others isn’t easy, and yet I think many people find it even harder to have compassion for themselves than to have it for others.
It’s interesting that you mention the language. I think I only really came to appreciate the language on the second or third read. It is lovely, but (probably because all the other aspects hit me right) that wasn’t the first thing to jump out at me.
Thanks! I think because I wasn’t that emotionally engaged with the book, the quality of the language was more apparent. If it hadn’t been so smoothly written I probably would have DNF’d, but instead I kept reading and enjoyed it.
Yes. I forgot to say earlier that I agree the opening chapter wasn’t strong. I had read an excerpt and I was still on the fence about purchasing after that, so I can understand not continuing on, too.