The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
The title of a book can be a powerful indicator of its success. I think the title of The Goblin Emperor is apt enough; it is a book about an emperor who is half-goblin, but it is not one that would have caught my eye. When I heard people raving about how good it was, that it was one of the best examples of stand-alone fantasy out there, I knew that I had to look past its name to the story within. I am grateful that word of mouth is an even more powerful tool than the title of a book.
Let me begin by telling you, dear reader, what this book has. This book has airships, it has elves and goblins, it has murder and treachery, betrayal and intrigue. This book has courtly politics and is a window into a strange new world the likes of which I have never seen. This book has magic and swordplay – even hints at pirates – and manages to fit all of its many facets in the single, albeit sprawling, setting of an elven palace. For sheer economy of space, you can’t really beat that package.
The titular character of the novel is a half-elf, half-goblin named Maia who just so happens to be the fourth child of the elven emperor Varenechibel IV (I still don’t know how to say that name). The book opens with the death of the emperor, as well as his three eldest sons, leaving poor Maia the only remaining heir to a kingdom that he never asked for and that terrifies him. The trope here is ‘hapless leader thrown into rule who needs to win over the hearts and minds of his subjects.’ This is not an unfamiliar tale, but Addison re-frames it in steampunk terms with interesting new racial overtones to give us one hell of a book.
What this book doesn’t have is humans. Not since Redwall have I read a book where human beings were so conspicuously absent. Addison does not even mention if they exist. There are some “barbarians” to the east, but it is never specified if they are human, and even if they were, we never meet any. Thankfully, a lack of humanity does not deny the reader a sense of sympathy for Maia, or any of the other characters, and the problems faced by the folks in this book are universal to all races – made up or otherwise.
I had assumed while reading The Goblin Emperor that Katherine Addison was some kind of European historian with a specialization in royal lineages. She writes about life at court as though she has lived it, and it was with some surprise that I later read how much she abhors research. What this tells me is that she is not so much historian (though certainly that) but rather someone who has read so much about royalty and life in palaces that the compost heap of her creativity produces growth unlike anything I could even imagine. She describes ornate rooms and methods of dress that one might expect to see on The Tudors. Another area that I expected to find her well-taught in is philology, particularly that of Celtic or Welsh antiquity. She has words in this work that no human tongue can easily pronounce, and while struggling to work out how names like Untheileneise and Alchethmeret are supposed to sound, I was astonished to find that at some point I not only began to enjoy these words, but actually relished them. I would find myself simply mouthing them while walking around or doing the dishes, reveling in the sound they made gliding across my tongue. This is a rare lingual gift that is not common in the fantasy world or any other. Steven Erikson has it, and of course Tolkien is the grand-master, but Addison know what she’s doing and she is in good company.
Like Robin Hobb and Patrick Rothfuss, Addison excels at characterization. She tells The Goblin Emperor in the third person, and we are completely with Maia in this story. She never veers from his viewpoint for a second, and this offers us a deep understanding of his motivations and desires – why he does what he does. She takes us through his life from his first day at court, through times of turmoil, and by the end I was in love with this plucky half-goblin and heartbroken to say goodbye. He evolves, which is what we always want to see in a good protagonist. Watching the characters around him change as he does, and mostly in response to him, is equally beautiful.
Maia’s story is not typical of this type of book either. When we think of grand, epic tales of rulers and kingdoms, we often imagine that the events surrounding those tales will be momentous and world-changing. The Goblin Emperor tells the story of a would-be ruler, but this is not a character who conquers nations or delivers his people from tyranny. In the end, his greatest accomplishment is simply surviving. This is deft work by a writer who knows that not every fantasy novel needs huge battles and intrusive gods in order to tell a compelling story.
I am so glad that I read this book. I am equally glad that people before me were wise enough to read it and hype it because otherwise I may never have done so.
There are a ton of books out there. Too many – probably.
Gosh, I love books.