So, today, 1 April 2014, is book release day for Katherine Addison’s THE GOBLIN EMPEROR, a book I had the pleasure of reading many months ago.
There are two things I ought to tell you about Katherine Addison. The first is that you probably know her better as Sarah Monette, author of MÉLUSINE and its follow-up novels in the DOCTRINE OF LABYRINTHS sequence, as well as a lot of great short fiction and a number of pieces co-authored with my esteemed girlfriend Elizabeth Bear. The second is that she’s a friend of mine, and I admit that I have nothing but warm feelings for her and her work,* and even with that fully and fairly disclosed I am now going to attempt to sell you this book.
Because it’s really fucking good, and it and its author both deserve to shine.
THE GOBLIN EMPEROR scratched an itch I wasn’t even aware I still had before reading it, namely, the pleasure of a story sunk in courtly intrigue, ritual, and etiquette in which a badly overmatched protagonist must match wits against the social machinery of entrenched and dangerous opposition. As an old fan of the Ray Feist / Janny Wurts EMPIRE trilogy (probably the most intricate and clever novels ever written in the Riftwar milieu) I was delighted by the mental fires THE GOBLIN EMPEROR relit for me.
Maia is the fourth and final son of the emperor of the elven court, the product of an ill-advised political marriage to a goblin lady. The emperor has several pure-blooded sons, so the half-goblin Maia is banished to the middle of nowhere in the care of a drunk, indifferent cousin. In his late teens, he is just becoming used to life as an inconvenient historical footnote when imperial messengers bring the news that the emperor’s airship has gone down, taking with it the emperor and all his favored heirs.
Along with the crown, Maia inherits the disdain of any number of factions at the elven court, most of which are already moving confidently against him while investigators are still sifting pieces of his father from the airship wreckage.
THE GOBLIN EMPEROR, however, is so much more than a clever tale of wits and manners and letters flung like catapult stones. It’s an exploration of the ironic powerlessness of power; how Maia, who can order life or death on a whim for anyone in what is now his empire, will never again have the freedom to sleep alone, to dismiss his bodyguards, to show friendly informality in public, or to do so much as dress himself. Though he can start wars, bring down mountains, and bridge rivers, Maia must navigate the rules and traditions of his court like an invisible labyrinth, facing prejudice and treason even from those sworn to serve him most closely.
In this respect, it’s much of a piece with another fascinating book I read years ago, Vonda N. McIntyre’s THE MOON AND THE SUN (winner of the Nebula Award). The protagonist of that novel, Marie-Josèphe, is a lady-in-waiting at the court of Louis XIV who resolves to rescue a genuine mermaid being callously exhibited in a fountain at the royal court. What makes Marie-Josèphe so fascinating is her absolute lack of formal power. As a woman in 17th-century France, she’s one notch above property and her life is entirely in the keeping of her brother, who can banish her to a nunnery and seems to be waiting for an excuse to do so. Marie-Josèphe has genuine gifts for science and music, yet is incapable of using them to reason with the men around her, who rebuke her for any public display of simple competence. And yet she fights… an important thing to note, oh writers, that power and agency are two very, very distinct things.
Maia, the titular GOBLIN EMPEROR, leads an infinitely cushier life yet is just as separated from the heroic fantasy tradition of kicking ass to solve his problems. In fact, Maia doesn’t kick a single ass in this novel. Maia cannot, under any circumstances, raise so much as a fist to strike someone in his court. He has people who tell people to tell other people to do that for him. Maia has no magic, no sorcerous weapons, no secret fate, no intervening gods. He has no lightning-bolt scar on his forehead. His power is the power of whispers and letters, of appointments and offices, of ritual and ceremony. Death is the only prize for coming in second in this etiquette contest.
If you’re at all interested in any of this, if you’re at all inclined to see this book succeed (and to see an excellent writer get a second shake in the commercial arena after several painful years of health issues), then please, heed my shameless begging and buy a copy soon. Soon! The first week of a new book’s release is the most important week. It ain’t fair, but it is what it is.
An exploration of privilege and constraint, a story of outsiders breaking in, an unapologetic love-letter to baroque and beautiful linguistic customs, and a story of compassion finding its way through cracks in the walls of despotism and greed, THE GOBLIN EMPEROR is worth the turn of every last page.
*In fact you might note that a blurb from yours truly adorns the cover of this novel. This is a delightful first for me.