The Goblin Emperor By Katherine Addison
I was going to review this anyways. I saw it sitting in Barnes and Noble as I was using the coupons they oh so dastardly send me to encourage me to shop in their store and I realized... Oh hey, this book is on my rec's list! And then this whole... thing came up so The Goblin Emperor got moved up. As a side note, I honestly prefer to buy from a brick and motor store over Amazon, Amazon's amazing don't get me wrong but I prefer the brick and motor experience if you get my meaning.
The Goblin Emperor is written by Katherine Addison which turns out to be a pen name for Sarah Monette who has been a published writer since at least 2003. Her other works (6 books and a bunch of short stories, she has done a lot of work), I am completely unfamiliar with these works so I can't comment on them at all. Wondering why I asked around about why an already published author would release a work under another name... The answer was basically that publishers don't like to release to many books under a single name or if they feel the writer is jumping their lane a bit, they put it under another name. Which is fair enough I suppose. Either way Monette is a very experienced author and it shows. The Goblin Emperor was published in 2014 and has received a lot of hype. So let's see if it stands up shall we?
The answer is... Well yeah. The Goblin Emperor is a well written book with a lot of in depth world building and characterization. Which is kinda of a problem because you need a glossary to understand people's names. For 3 chapters I just thought the elves just gave all their women the same first name for example. Part of the problem here is that the glossary is in the back of the book and I had no idea it was there as part of my own refusal to peek ahead for spoilers. Also I may be slow on the uptake. Advice for those of you writing a book that might need a glossary? Put it in the front, or note it's existence up front so I can look at it. Additionally, because of Monette's ruthless devotion to first person single narrative we don't really get to explore the in depth world building because our main character is very much nailed into place in the first couple chapters. It's like realizing someone has made an incredibly rich and interesting painting... But you only get to see a corner of it.
Let me talk about that main character a bit, Maia is the youngest prince of the elvish empire. He is also the most despised son of his father, the Emperor. Because of this Maia has been raised in a back country estate by an exiled noblemen far away from the court... Or anyone else and with a haphazard education. Normally this wouldn't matter, but the Emperor and all his other sons die very suddenly, leaving Maia as pretty much the most powerful person on the planet. Maia is a shy retiring type of person. I can sympathize with that. In fact I like Maia, although there are times where I want to scream at him to do something. That said, his quiet understated courage and devotion to trying his best to be a good Emperor to his people are traits I enjoyed. I also liked that he was also willing to push his own path at times. So I feel that on the whole Maia balanced out well. Certainly better then some protagonists I could name... That said, he's often not the most interesting character in the room and the interesting characters are here and gone.
Now the reason for Maia's disgrace is a very simple one. Maia's mother was a Goblin Princess that was married to the Elvish Emperor for political reasons. The Emperor, like many upper class elves (who are the standard light hair, eye and skin colored types), dislikes goblins. Now when I say goblins, I don't mean the squat ugly fellows you saw in the Hobbit or the green skinned capitalist many of you know from World of Warcraft. I mean dark skinned elves.
So not these guys.
More like these guys.
I'm kinda of two minds on that. On the one hand racism is bad and it's good to address that. On the other hand, Christ this is most well worn, safest message you can pick for your fantasy book. I mean even Harry Potter beat that horse into paste. That said, I'm a white male and this may be coloring my opinion. I have rarely suffered negative effects for my race or gender and certainly never to the extent say... A black person in the United States would. I am aware of this, but at the same time? Heinlein was doing this moral in 1959! I am not against having social messages in fantasy or science fiction, it's a well and time honored tradition and in some ways the two genres are at their best when they are tackling political and social issues through metaphor and allegory. But racism is bad frankly feels increasingly safe as a message. Which is a good thing for our society, but it also means I think unless you can bring something new to the table you may want to consider looking at some of the other issues plaguing our society. By all means keep the racism is bad issue, but lets look at some other issues as well. Besides the book doesn't have anything to really say on the subject nor does it examine the issue in a new or interesting way. It's just, hey the pale skinned upper class elves are mean to the lower class dark skinned elves and that's awful. People who do that are bad and should stop. Which I agree with but what else you got?
Additionally, we have a name for dark skinned elves and it isn't goblins! Yes, I am gonna be a bit of a purist snob here. I would have preferred it if the goblins here were called something else. Use the Norse name if you don't want to say Dark Elf or borrow from another mythology. I can get the problem of having dark skinned elves be evil (which is why they're increasingly shown as gray instead of black) but the goblins here aren't evil so calling them Dark Elves would have helped deal with that problem. But frigid you say, aren't goblins presented as evil usually. Yes, that's true... But how many people with green skin and fangs do you see on the street? But I'm rambling now.
Also there are some questions this brings up. If the Goblins have their own state, which is so powerful, that the Emperor of Elves is marrying one of their princesses to help preserve the peace... Why is the elvish empire's underclass so full of half goblins and such? What's the history here? What happened?!? I am left with many, many questions that I am eager for answers for. Why is Elf society set up this way, how much is the life of the average elf different from the nobility? How did this happen? Where did the nobility come from? Hints are dropped, and they are tantalizing, but that's all I get. I have to admit it leaves me so many questions... Someone get her started on a sequel using one of those soldiers or factory workers I hear about.
I also would have loved to hear some of Maia's lessons on how the Elvish government system actually worked. The Emperor is clearly limited by the law but is still a powerful executive in his own right dealing with a tiered parliament of sorts that is utterly dominated by a hereditary elite but also has elected members (who gets to vote?). He is also the highest judge in the land and we should have seen more of that. Maia only gets involved in a single legal battle and solves it in a single afternoon. The Emperor is clearly more powerful then the say the current English Monarchs but more constrained then the Saudi monarchs.
Maia is forced to confront the fact that most of his court doesn't want him to be Emperor and that someone murdered his father and half brothers. He has to solve the mystery using his own resources as the official investigation gets fouled up by the prejudices of the court officials running it. It's a really interesting plot... That we don't get to see very much of. Most of it happens away from Maia. Bluntly put there's not a lot of action in this book. There's intrigue, internal conflict and political sneakiness.
These are all fairly well done and were interesting enough to keep me reading the book. But if you have no interest in these kinds of things at all, you will be bored out of your damn mind. This is a book where tastes may vary. Monette goes all out on the intrigue and showing the problems a monarch may have trying to manage a powerful and unruly nobility. Nor does she shy away from the consequences of it. Good people die, are ruined or have unpleasant things happen to them because of the actions of other people. Life is unfair, actions have consequences for people other then you and not even an Emperor can change that. Nor does being an Emperor shield you from the fall out of those actions. I really liked that. Still the book manages to keep from veering into the dark darkness of dark that some writers love to play in. I am thankful for that. Monette manages to keep a balance here.
We also see Maia grow from a teenager terrified of the bully who raised him into an adult willing to stand up for himself. Which honestly seems to be the main thrust of the book. Planting a crown on his head didn't really make him a monarch. Nor did giving him a throne make him powerful. It was his own efforts to grow into the role and start developing a willingness to tell people no that did. Realizing that all these people do in fact work for him so he is in fact in charge was kinda a process, but it was process that I kinda liked reading. Monette found ways to keep me from getting to frustrated with Maia as he bungled about especially with the opposite sex. I did find it somewhat true to life that while being powerful and rich certainly helps you with the ladies, when the ladies are used to wealthy and powerful, it's not gonna be enough to carry you over the home plate. Although I kinda disagree with the idea that his goblin blood made so many of the nobility stand at arms length. He's the fucking Emperor! You get on his good side! This isn't calculus, it's addition.
So to sum up, the characterization is interesting and believable. The main character sympathetic and likable and the world itself seems a rich one that I hope to see more stories in. The plot is one that I liked following. That said the world building is dense and not very well explained. The most interesting parts of the story, happen where you can't see them and there is a deep dearth of action and excitement in this story to my point of view. Whether you like this book is going to come down to a simple matter of taste in my view.
The Goblin Emperor gets a B+ as it doesn't suffer the minus from being a book in a series. Still I hope Monette takes more time to explain some of her world building if she should ever return to the world of Maia and I am actually eager to return.