I am one of those people who can be skeptical of hype. I don’t think too negatively of it, and in fact hype will usually make me curious, but I do tend to raise my eyebrows at anything that has a lot of hype attached to it. There have been enough times when I’ve believed in the hype, and been disappointed to find that whatever is being hyped doesn’t quite live up to the expectations generated by the hype.
But sometimes, there are books that live up to the hype – and, even more rarely, exceed it. They don’t happen often, but when they do, I tend to find books that make me scream and shriek with delight, that force me to resist the urge to cry in the middle of my workplace, that have me reaching for my cellphone so I can send a text to Hope because I have no one else to talk to about the book in question (because she’s usually the one who gets me into the book in the first place). When such a book comes into my life, I hold it in high regard, and hold it very dear, because they happen only so very rarely.
So when I first started seeing Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor floating up at the usual places I haunt on the Internet, and saw the praise that was being heaped upon it, I was curious, but not entirely ready to jump on that bandwagon just yet. I was the same with Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice earlier this year: there was so much praise being heaped on it that I didn’t know if I wanted to get into it right away. It’s not because the people praising the book are questionable: the praise was coming from authors that I loved to read, and whom I respected. I guess I just didn’t want to jump onto the bandwagon when everyone else was on it because it would influence my opinion of the book.
But Hope? I trust Hope, and she is free to influence me any way she wishes. So, hot on the heels of my finishing Jeff VanderMeer’s Authority, and while I was in the middle of writing a review for Annihilation, she called me to tell me that she’d read The Goblin Emperor, and that I should read it too, because the hype was real, and she needed someone to talk to about it so could I please read it already?
And that night, I picked it up, and found it very, very hard to stop, practically inhaling it over the course of perhaps three days during the long downtimes I have at my new job. And she was, as always, very right: The Goblin Emperor lives up to the hype, and more, at least for me, because in a way, I feel like it was perfectly crafted specifically for me.
Set in a fantasy world inhabited by elves and goblins, The Goblin Emperor is the story of Maia, the youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor of the Elflands. Cast aside almost from his birth, Maia never once thought that he would sit upon the throne his father currently ruled from. After all, he had a handful of older half-brothers, all of whom were more favoured by his father and therefore in a better position to inherit the throne. But when his father and his brothers all suddenly die, he is the last legitimate heir to Empire – and he has almost no choice except to take the throne, lest the entire country descend into civil war.
And so Maia, who has no experience of court politics, and no desire to play them if he can, must now find a way to hold onto his newfound position, threading his way through this labyrinth of a world that he’d never expected to be caught up in, and hope that he can keep his throne – and his life.
I mentioned earlier that this book felt like it was crafted specifically for me. To understand why I say that, it helps to know that I absolutely adore any book that deals with court intrigue. I enjoy more action-oriented books, of course, but I have an enormous soft spot in my heart for books that devote time to the deadly games played in throne rooms and court councils and in more private, secret moments: scenes wherein a well-placed word, or even a smile, can bring immense change. Writing action scenes presents its own unique challenge, but I am a mite more appreciative of scenes that depict court intrigue well.
The Goblin Emperor is practically ninety percent court intrigue. Once Maia enters the Imperial Palace, he very rarely leaves its confines and immediate vicinity, and almost all the action has to do with how he interacts with the denizens of the court. Maia himself is not the violent sort, and so most of the fighting back that he does (such as it is, given his personality) has to do with what he does (or does not) do and/or say, and how he says and/or does it. The other characters comment upon (and react to) his words and his actions, for better or for worse, and Maia has to respond to those actions and words in his own way. Most moments of tension involve, not actual physical violence, but the threat of it, or questions of etiquette or law or some other point of statecraft that Maia is trying to grasp. Those moments of tension are also very personal to Maia, as he tries to figure out who means him harm, and who does not.
This sort of thing absolutely, utterly delights me. I love reading about how Maia learns to play the court game, but doing so on his own terms. To be sure, Maia’s not very good at it at first, but he does have people behind him who are quite good at playing the game, and reading about how they manoeuvre and manipulate things behind the scenes (from Maia’s, and thus the reader’s, perspective) is also ridiculously fun. While swords are drawn, eventually, a wonderful majority of the novel deals with using the pen, the word, manners, and good intentions as weapons, both for good and for ill.
Speaking of words and language, both play a central role in the story. Addison doesn’t go quite so far as Tolkien did in creating a new language, but she plays with the concepts of “polite” and “familiar” language in order to create more nuanced dialogue. Understanding that kind of concept is easier for a bilingual reader, but even monolingual English readers will be able to pick up on the nuances eventually, as Addison is careful to leave and build on clues that are scattered – subtly, I might add – throughout the novel, though most heavily in the first third.
She also uses language to build the world itself: as Maia speaks, and as other characters speak, the reader comes to construct the world of The Goblin Emperor in their head, and it is a rich, and very deep, world indeed. One doesn’t see a great deal of it, but Addison is great at implying that though we are only seeing a part of it, the world is vast, and goes far, far beyond the scope of what one reads in the novel. It’s rather sad, actually, that the reader doesn’t get the chance to explore the world more fully, especially since it seems so fascinating and beautiful. This is a complaint that Hope and I share, because while we are certainly happy that Th Goblin Emperor is a one-shot, we do wish that there would be more stories forthcoming set in the same world. If Ms. Addison comes across this review, I hope she decides to go back and write another story in the same world. It doesn’t have to be a sequel to The Goblin Emperor (though I wouldn’t complain, and neither would Hope, who expressed this desire first), but it would be lovely to explore the world a bit more, because any stories set in it are bound to be marvellous.
But none of this would really matter if it weren’t for the fact that Maia, and the characters around him, are easy to love. The novel is told through third-person limited perspective, and entirely from Maia’s point of view, so the reader really gets to know him, and through him, the other people at the court. In such cases, it’s vital that the primary narrator be, at the very least, a tolerable character, but Maia is not merely tolerable: he is absolutely wonderful, albeit there is a core of shadow and sadness to that, as well. The way he views the world comes from a specific, and (sadly) common perspective: that of someone who has been abused and neglected for most of their life. Maia could have easily become vengeful and hateful the moment he came to the throne, but the circumstances of his life before that – and the way he views those circumstances – prevent him from going on an all-out vengeance spree against those who have hurt him. This just makes him even more loveable, in my opinion, and lends weight to the things he does and does not do as emperor. This leads him to make decisions and do things that startle many of the veterans at court, but what I love the most is that he continues to do as his heart tells him to do. True, he doubts himself over and over and over again (creating some very heartbreaking moments), but in the end, he does what he thinks is right – even if it flies in the face of what an emperor would “typically” do.
Assisting him in his attempts to do the right thing is his…well, I suppose “privy council” would be a good term for the people closest to Maia throughout the course of the novel. I don’t quite remember if if they were known by a specific term, collectively, but they essentially served Maia in a way a privy council would any other monarch, so I’ll stick with that term. At any rate, these people have been at court long enough to know what is and isn’t done, but they also admire, and love, Maia, and find ways and means of letting Maia do as he pleases – creating some of the best personal moments in the novel. While there are certainly a lot of scenes that have to do with Maia thinking (and occasionally talking) to himself, there are also plenty of others wherein Maia comes to grips with what it means to be emperor, and manages to get through the day thanks to the people around him.
(I must also confess to having an enormous, enormous soft spot for a character named Csevet. I can’t explain why, because that would be revealing too much, but suffice to say that he is, in essence, “my type,” and I adore him very much. I do love Maia, of course, but Csevet occupies a space slightly bigger than Maia’s in my heart.)
One more thing about characters, but about Maia, in particular: I am very much puzzled by some of the reactions I’ve seen online. Some reviewers don’t like the novel because they find Maia “too soft” or “too nice.” These kinds of reactions make me scratch my head, because really, the whole point of this novel is that Maia is kind, that Maia is a good person, with very little ruthlessness to him and even less cruelty – all this, despite his background. The Goblin Emperor is not Game of Thrones or some other grimdark piece. I think it’s meant to be something higher, nobler, something brighter than something by George R.R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie – proof that though fantasy has been walking in the shadows a lot lately, it’s still capable of telling a story about good people doing the right thing without becoming broody and jaded.
I’ve also come across some complaints regarding the language: how it seems so strange, and is difficult for some readers, to the point that they are completely turned off by it. While others are free to express their dislike for any aspect of a novel that does not suit them, I, for one, absolutely adore the way Addison appears to have created an entire new language for her world, but chooses not to force it down readers’ throats wholesale by using it only in proper names. It’s part of why this world seems so rich, and so deep: every name has a history, after all, and the names suggest so much without making Addison go into long lecture-like explanations. It takes some work, of course, to put names to places and faces and such, but it’s work worth doing. I suspect that some readers are merely lazy and expect everything to be easy, for the writer to spoon-feed them all the information they want, but that’s merely my opinion. I, for one, enjoy being made to do some work for the sake of comprehension, and am very grateful that the author has chosen to believe the best of her readers’ intelligence and written her novel accordingly.
Overall, The Goblin Emperor is a near-perfect gem of a novel. On the surface, it’s about court intrigue, but dig deeper and one sees that it’s not just about court intrigue, but about how a person from difficult circumstances overcomes their own fears to become a genuinely good person – and a truly wonderful leader. It is also very bright and hopeful: sad things happen, and death happens too, but it’s not without reason, and not without some ray of sunshine somewhere in the midst of all the sadness. The language is exquisite, and helps to build a world that I wish I could go back to in another story, just to see its other facets, to explore the corners hinted at but never really shown. There are also deeper, richer themes buried in the novel, but never once do they overshadow the plot or the characters – instead, they are an integral part of the novel itself, and are explored and tackled in a manner that doesn’t get in the way of the story. The only problem with it is that there isn’t more of it, but hopefully the author will do something about that eventually, even if it’s not a direct sequel.