Saturday 19 December 2015

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

I don't normally read traditional fantasies (as opposed to contemporary ones set in our present-day world, for which I have a particular fondness) but this one received such enthusiastic endorsements from members of the Classic Science Fiction discussion group that I sent off for it to see what the fuss was about.

Maia is a crossbreed between the two races that occupy his world, known as goblins and elves. Such crossbreeds are not so unusual, despite the fact that the elves consider themselves to be superior and look down on any with goblin blood. What is unusual is that Maia's father is the Emperor of the Elvish Imperial Court, Maia himself being the outcome of a brief and unsuccessful political marriage. The end of that marriage saw him banished to a remote rural settlement at a young age, under the control of a cruel, out-of-favour courtier who was banished with him.

The story begins with a shocking development: an Imperial Courier arrives with news that the Emperor plus all of his other sons have died in an airship crash, so at the age of eighteen Maia is transported to the magnificent Imperial Court – a world completely alien to him – to take on a role no-one (least of all Maia) expected to fall to him. He is faced with a minefield of procedures and protocol and the sneering dismissal of much of the court, so he sets about finding allies who will advise and assist him. The book covers his bumpy progress in the first few months of his reign, as the shy, gauche and ill-educated youth gradually develops the confidence and determination to overcome his disadvantages and become a true Emperor.

So far this seems like the plot of any number of fantasies set in a world which is a kind of cross between medieval and steampunk themes, with an elaborate court, a guild system and huge differences between rich and poor. On the technological side there are large-scale clockwork mechanisms and hydrogen-filled airships used for high-value travel.  But what sets The Goblin Emperor apart is the quality of the story-telling. The author draws in the reader to empathise with and cheer on Maia to such a degree that this particular reader finished this heart-warming tale – all 500 pages of it – in just two days; it is one of the most unputdownable books I have read in a very long time. I was most reminded of the Deryni series by Katherine Kurtz, a long-time favourite.

About the only criticism I have is of the names of the many characters. The author has worked out a complex naming system that is explained in an appendix, along with a list of the characters (very necessary, and I found myself constantly referring to it to try to keep tabs on who's who). However, even with this aid it is not at all easy to keep up, as the names are listed alphabetically by family name followed by individual names, but the characters are often referred to by their individual names only. This appendix could do with a lot more structure.

A few other observations: considering the baggage carried by the names "goblins" and "elves", it is surprising that the author appropriated them to describe her two races of people who are clearly human in all essential respects, with just enough physical differences to make it obvious that we are not talking about Homo sapiens. The author also dangles some fantasy tropes, such as a rare and precious sword given to the Emperor and a flash of magic from one of the characters, without explaining them or taking them any further. All set up for the next volume of the usual long series, then? Apparently not; despite the fact that her hero has only just overcome the worst of his initial problems, no direct sequel is planned. For once I find that very regrettable, as there are plenty of questions left dangling and lots of scope for exploring other aspects of an interesting world.

Katherine Addison is a pen-name of the established fantasy author Sarah Monette. The Goblin Emperor was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards and won the 2015 Locus Award for best fantasy novel. If you want a hugely enjoyable feel-good story to lose yourself in, you can't do much better than this.


Bill Garthright said...

Yeah, I agree with all of that, Tony. Great review! (Well, it must be, if you agree with me, right? Heh, heh.)

Anthony G Williams said...

Great minds think alike, to coin a phrase!