Review: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (2014)
Categories: Fairies (elves/goblins), Political Intrigue, Royalty and Nobility
Content Warnings (Highlight to read): References to past (offscreen) child abuse
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Description: Maia, the youngest son of the elven emperor, was somebody nobody thought would inherit the throne. Half-goblin and the result of a loveless political marriage, he has lived his entire life in exile. Yet, when every family member closer to the throne dies in an airship crash, along with the ruling emperor, he finds himself at age 18 taken to the capital and thrust into a role he has barely been prepared for. He has no friends, and barely knows which of his supporters he dare trust. Even so, Maia must negotiate the bewildering tangle of court political intrigue, arranged marriages, parliamentary disagreements, and, of course, investigating the deaths of his family.
Impression: Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. What a gorgeous, fantastic book.
I love Maia in his entirety—he is sweet, genuinely empathetic, and self-aware to a fault, while simultaneously terrifyingly cognizant that he cannot afford to be a pushover. The writing is technically flawless, each line considered and polished and in its place, which is something that I’ve come to expect with the author (who also writes under Sarah Monette, and whose work I always enjoy). The pace is deliberately dense—there are a lot of sections of Maia just sorting through political conundrums, but each of them builds out the bigger story as a whole, and all of them tie together thematically by the end. The setting is a rich, well-developed world, with everything from a society of stratified classes through messages sent by specific fashions or jewels all the way to multiple forms of familiar and formal grammar. The plot itself is in some ways simple, but the story itself, about Maia and who he will become and what is at risk, is tied up in many elements that are not simply the plot.
The most brilliant thing that Addison does is put us very literally in Maia’s position as we navigate the story: which is to say, that the character names and relationships are dense and easy to confuse. With names that start with ‘ch’ alone, we have Chadevan, Chavada, Chavar (x2), Chavel, Chevarimai, and Choharo! As someone who’s bad with names, I was very quickly in a panic of I would ever remember anyone. Then, I shifted to being bulldoggedly determined to manage anyway, and…failed. Finally, I came to resignedly accept that when most characters reappeared, I needed to flip to the (fourteen-page) name list at the back to refresh myself. It was around on page 150 that this clicked: It was exactly what Maia had to do, too. He started out completely overwhelmed, and slowly navigated to a place where he accepted that, as someone not raised to this properly, in order to make any sense of things, he needed to accept the embarrassment of asking questions.
Basically: This might be a dense read, full of similar names and complicated (and explosive) relationships between these similarly-named people, but it’s that for Maia too, and the best way forward is to let it roll over you, accept that you need help, and trust the narrative to remind you when something is important. And it will. It offers you all the help you need, whenever you need it. It’s an exercise that I’m not used to as a reader, an exercise in letting go, but it’s a strong enough narrative to hold you up when you do.
In all ways, this is a character vignette written large, a story about how Maia reacts to things, about his personal connections to others, about his fears and hopes, his love and hate, his detachment from things that he is expected to be attached to (such as a family he never knew) and his attachment to things he is expected to have no interest in (such as the commoners also lost in the crash that killed his family). It’s a story about bonds, and I love nothing more than stories about bonds.
(Note: This novel has no primary queer content. It does have secondary and tertiary gay and lesbian characters, as well as representations of both a heteronormative and a non-heteronormative culture.)
Related Reviews: The Bone Key by Sarah Monette