This is one of those posts that I don’t quite know how to write, because I what I want to say about this book is very simple: read it. But that’s not exactly convincing. Also, I am very late to this one, so I feel like everyone has already read it, which makes my voice superfluous. I know, logically, that this isn’t true, but, well, okay. I’ll say my piece anyway.
Katherine Addison is the pen-name of Sarah Monette, author of the Doctrine of Labyrinths, which I had not read but which was peripherally on my radar. And then it seemed like everyone whose tastes I share read The Goblin Emperor and loved it, which meant I had to read it too.
The Goblin Emperor is the story of Maia, half-goblin son of the emperor of the elves. He is ignored, exiled from court, abused by the tutor his father placed over him. But then he abruptly becomes the only living heir to the throne, and must take up the burden of ruling an empire which looks at him askance.
Although things certainly happen in this book, and it’s partly a mystery as Maia tries to discover what happened to his father and half-brothers, it’s primarily character-driven. This is the story of a young man coming to terms with power and his own relationship to it. It’s story of a young man growing into himself.
It’s hard in some ways to describe what I admire about this book, because if I say that it has a sense of hope, of duty, of loyalty and trying really hard, it makes it sound slightly old-fashioned and even a bit stodgy. Really, it’s the opposite. It’s all about passive resistance and quiet rebellion, of stubbornly and yet gently undermining the status quo. Maia, the Goblin Emperor, raised outside the politics of the court, challenges the assumptions and patterns of that court, without being revolutionary, exactly. It’s about friendship, overwhelmingly, and about choosing a path when it looks like you have no choice at all.
And in all that, Maia is so careful–so maddeningly, heart-breakingly over careful–to not abuse his power. He errs on the side of caution again and again, even when dealing with his old tutor who was clearly awful to him. It would be completely understandable if Maia used his new position to take revenge on him, but instead he uses it to win himself a little space and safety. I can’t tell you how much this made me care about him. If he had run amok with power, if he had turned into the anti-hero we see so often these days, I wouldn’t have liked this story nearly as well. Instead, he constantly worries about his own responses, the implications of his choices, his own complicity. He tries so hard to do what is humanly right, rather than falling back on the cold logic of political stances. The central conflict of the story is whether this will fail him, or whether it will carry him through.
If this is sounding somewhat familiar to some of you, it should. This is a wonderful readalike for Megan Whalen Turner’s books (especially King of Attolia), and for Lois McMaster Bujold, and for fans of Elizabeth Wein’s Telemakos. Maia is not Gen, or Miles, or Telemakos, but they share similar struggles and responses (less so Miles than the others, perhaps; Miles’ relationship to power is a different one).
Besides the story and the characters, Addison absolutely excels at the more technical aspects of writing. The prose fits the story perfectly, third person limited with just that hint of distance that keeps us worried about Maia, keeps us just separate from him and worried about him. It’s quietly understated, in a way that hides real talent and craft because it never puts a foot wrong and it looks so easy.
There’s also some wonderful worldbuilding here. Partly in the purely technical sense of giving the right amount of information without being infodumpy, but more in the way the world is set up. There are aspects which mirror our world, which provide interesting commentary and resonances (…and I’ve made it sound like a political tract, which it’s not). There are other aspects which are quite different. I felt that Addison had been entirely thoughtful and deliberate about this, that her worldbuilding had integrity in all its pieces, both large and small.
As I said about Sorrow’s Knot, I feel like I’m reducing this alchemy of beauty into its component parts. What I really want to say is: go, read this book. It is a beautiful thing.
I loved this post from Monette on fantasy, grimdark, and hope. I suspect that if it resonates with you, you’ll really like The Goblin Emperor.
Book source: public library (but I WILL be buying it!)
Book information: 2014, Tor Books; published adult but a great YA crossover