The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison
When I finished The Goblin Emperor, I was sad there wasn’t more of it. Is there higher praise?
The things other people have critiqued do make sense: the fact that is very much character-driven rather than plot driven; the plethora of names and titles to get used to; the language stuff which may superficially appear just gimmicky and faux-archaic; the fact that Maia is often reacting rather than being proactive. Me, though, I loved it, for all of those things and more. For example, the thee/thou stuff was annoying me until someone pointed out to look closer: normally people who use thee/thou don’t get that it’s an informal form of address (presumably at least partly because of the ubiquity of the Lord’s Prayer, which uses that address for God) and so for someone who is familiar with Old and Middle English and French like me, it becomes very annoying to have people addressing their king as if he were their equal or inferior. Here, however, the pronouns are all intentional. If a character uses the first person plural, most often they are actually being formal; if they then drop into using ‘I’, then they are speaking as a private person, among friends. It’s worth watching what Addison does with pronouns, because when they change, you know something’s up. In a way, the conflict between I/we is a central part of Maia’s character and his relationships.
When it comes to the invented language, it’s a little more difficult. You end up with various forms of address depending on marital status and rank, and there are suffixes which alter names according to number and gender. This is something we’re just not used to dealing with in English these days, and it can make it very difficult to keep track of a character as they switch spheres and are referred to in different ways. There is actually a helpful section in the back, which is probably easier to refer to if you’re reading it in dead tree, which explains all of these things if it’s something you’re interested in. For me, I liked puzzling it out, and context often helped.
(From this point in the review, there are some minor spoilers!)
But all that could be there and interesting and it wouldn’t have made me care about the book like the central character did. People are right to talk about the massive contrast with “grimdark” fantasy; Maia is pretty unambiguously good, and though he may sometimes feel angry, or vengeful, he tries to be fair and not to use his newfound rank to punish those who have done him wrong. He has plenty of opportunity, he has the right, but he holds himself back. He cares about his social inferiors and servants, and though he was never trained to be emperor, never expected to be emperor, he gives himself to the role without reserve. I loved him and the characters around him, loved the moments when he pushed the boundary by apologising to them or showing concern, and the moments in return where they took a more personal interest in him. I wanted to see more of his closest guards, especially Cala, but the public/private formal/informal boundaries prevent that; we just get glimpses. I loved the moment where Cala buttons up Maia’s sleeve for him to hide the marks of abuse, the way Beshelar reacts.
I enjoyed that Addison evaded some things that would’ve spoilt my enjoyment. For example, Maia gets a crush on an opera singer, and yet there’s no seduction, no abuse of his power over her or vice versa. When she offers to have a ‘closer relationship’ with him, in a personal sense you want Maia to say yes, because it may make him happy — but because of the situation, you want Maia to remain the person he is, reluctant to abuse his role, and it’s a relief when he does. Addison shows Maia struggling with the role, but never betraying it or himself. I love that, I love that we’re not expected to forgive him a betrayal of his self because shiny happy love or something.
In terms of female characters, it’s interesting, because it’s set in a proto-medieval type world (though the religion implied at is somewhat Buddhist, with meditation taking a key role for Maia) and women are marginalised, but they’re not happy with it, and nor are all the men around them. There are educated women, women who pursue their skills and interests, women who are not afraid to defend their rights, their children, and in Maia’s fiancée’s case, her husband! Even one of Maia’s guards is, in the end, a woman. While I think the proto-medieval-Europe thing can be overdone, and there are shades of it here, Addison goes further than others in showing that world changing. For example, Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne is ostensibly set in the world where women are given freedoms, educated, political, etc, and yet not one of them chooses to take an unambiguously unfeminine role — we don’t see female warriors, there remains a definite line between the roles of the sexes. Addison blurs that, shows it in the process of blurring, which I enjoyed very much.
When I say that I’m sad there isn’t more of this, it’s not because the story is incomplete. Of course, Maia’s life goes on afterwards, but I don’t want more because I need to know what happens next, or because there’s anything unsatisfying about it. I want more because I love the world, love engaging with Addison’s characters and figuring out her world, and I think there’s plenty more there for her to play with if she chooses. This is a book I’m sure I’m going to reread — I could almost just start it again right now, which is very rare for me. There are few fiction books I engage with on this level of looking for language, history, figuring out customs and conventions. It’s not on the same level as Tolkien, who spent a lifetime refining his world, but there is a complexity here which I really love.