Apr 2, 2014

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine AddisonThe Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Maia, the protagonist of Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, has spent his life in exile. As the youngest son of the emperor of the Elflands (and as the dark-skinned son of a Goblin mother, an unforgivable sin in some people’s eyes) he wasn’t considered anyone of importance. After his mother’s death when he was eight, he was sent to live with a relative in an isolated province, and he’s had no direct contact with his father since. But before his nineteenth birthday, his father and his three older brothers all die in a highly suspicious accident. As the only surviving heir, Maia becomes emperor. The novel follows him as he enters a confusing, highly complex, and often actively hostile court, and as he tries to make sense of its politics, conspiracies, and ever-shifting allegiances. In a world full of intrigue, Maia tries to break free from his isolation — both for very human reasons, and so that he can find the reliable support and advice he needs to become the best ruler he can be.

I loved this book at both a micro and a macro level. The first thing to draw me in was the personal angle, but by the end I loved the politics too. The Goblin Emperor is two things: one, it’s a moving story about a lonely teenager who grew up with an abusive relative trying desperately to reach out, but having to contend with all the complications inherent to his position; two, it’s the story of a political conspiracy and of the complicated circumstances that gave rise to it. The mystery behind the previous emperor’s demise didn’t fully capture my attention until later in the novel, but once it did, oh! I was in absolute awe of how skilfully Addison handled it.

Before I delve into any of this in more detail, though, let me tell you a little bit more about the world The Goblin Emperor is set in. Addison’s worldbuilding is intricate, and you may well feel more than a bit lost at first — but that’s perfectly okay, because you’re anchored by a character who feels just as lot as you do. Also, a lot of the worldbuilding is embedded in the language, and when done as well as it is here, this is one of my absolute favourite things. For example, there are complex forms of address and distinctions between first person plural (formal), first person plural that really means a plural, and first personal singular (intimate and informal). Addison handles it skilfully enough that it never becomes confusing, and it’s such an elegant and economic way to convey subtle but crucial information about the characters and their relationships, as well as information about the world’s social mores.

Another thing worth examining is the fact that The Goblin Emperor is set in an imaginary world whose power dynamics mirror those of our own: for example, women are mainly perceived as fit for marriage and childrearing, and powerful families have no qualms about using their daughters as bargaining chips in political allegiances. This is also a world where homophobia runs rife, and even Maia himself, when told that someone close to him is marnei, is unsure what to think of his “unnatural love”. But — and this is crucial; this is why I loved this novel — this not a world where inequality is used as a lazy backdrop for the story being told. As a fantasy fan I sometimes get frustrated with the use of the status quo simply as an unquestioned background element (here’s an excellent essay by Kate Elliott that touches on this), but that’s not because I think all fantasies should model themselves on ideal worlds. It’s because it seems like a waste not to use our limitless imaginations to a) explore other possibilities or b) thoughtfully examine injustice and how political change might come about. The Goblin Emperor does the latter, and it does it better than anything I’ve seen in a very long time.

This, then, is a world whose power dynamics match our own’s, but, much like in reality, you see the fissures. The status quo is never homogeneous — there are always counter-currents; there are always people trying to challenge it or break free from it; there are always seeds of future change. In this case, we have people who “share (…) the belief that women can and should do the same intellectual work as men”; we have women engineers, astronomers, and Maia’s ostracised Sea Captain aunt; we have Kiru, the first woman to become Nohecharis (one of four always present guards who work in shifts of two) to the Emperor; and we have half-goblin Maia himself, who approaches power with the perspective and sensibility of someone who experienced exclusion first-hand. If you’re someone like Maia, how do you reconcile the powerful and authoritative role you’re cast into with the person you feels yourself to be deep down? Do you change who you are? Do you forget the things you know to be true about the world because you’ve experienced it from the fringes? Or do you break with tradition and change the way your power is wielded? Can an inexperienced eighteen-year-old embrace the challenge of using his role to bring the world as he knows it to the attention of the elites he’s now a part of?

These are the questions at the heart of The Goblin Emperor — which, as you can imagine, means this is a novel deeply concerned with political change. As Addison herself puts it in her brilliant Big Idea post, “the cage door isn’t actually closed”. This is such a perfect way to describe so much of what this novel does. The rules of an authoritative, patriarchal, unequal world can and do shift. I can’t help but compare Addison’s handling of the political questions The Goblin Emperor raises with the Equalists plotline in the first season of The Legend of Korra — everything that series got so horribly, horribly wrong this novel gets right. This is a story that acknowledges the terrible human cost of violent actions, but also the context in which such actions begin to seem like plausible paths. Painful and cruel actions can have valid grievances behind them, and being capable of complex political thinking means recognising that acknowledging this is not the same as legitimising them.

Maia’s conversation with Shulivar at the end gave me chills: it would have been so easy to botch it by creating a mwahaha-ing villain, yet Addison manages to hang on to the complexity she’d introduced previously at the most difficult moment. Shullivar is callous and terrifying, yet this is partially because you can see how the world’s structure drives people like him to despair. There’s no attempt to oversimplify the situation by arriving at clear-cut answers. Of course the loss of human lives is horrifying; of course desperate circumstances and rampant inequality push people towards these actions. Of course the status quo is incredibly difficult to challenge, of course there’s no easy way to bring about change, of course many of the things we’re grateful for in the world were brought about messily and painfully — and yet of course that starting to think of human lives as “a price worth paying” means you’re going down a dark, dark path. Maia is left shaken and grappling with questions that are likely to inform his work over the coming decades — as we often are in the real world.

At the same time, though, The Goblin Emperor is careful not to equate all political dissatisfaction with violent radical action, as if that way the inevitable outcome of discontent. There are many, many people in this world with grievances big and small, and these express themselves in a multitude of ways. There’s bridge-building, and there are the big ripples seemingly small changes can bring about. When we part ways with Maia, we see many hints at changes yet to come, and we’re left feeling that the Elflands are in good hands.

Last but certainly not least, there’s the personal, human angle that drew me into this novel to begin with. There’s Maia’s acute loneliness and his ache for a friend, and there’s his slow realisation that sometimes you have to take what you can get. Being emperor will always set him apart, in a kind of isolation that’s different but sometimes just as painful as what he experienced for the first eighteen years of his life. And yet his life is also full of moments of companionship. Maia learns many things over the course of The Goblin Emperor (about himself, about his world, about the hurts great and small inflicted to those he rules, about trusting his instincts and believing in the legitimacy of his own perspective, etc), but possibly one of the most important is the fact that he doesn’t have to force his personal relationships into moulds. Maybe it’s true that an emperor can’t have friends in the common sense of the term, but that doesn’t mean that the uncommon bonds he forges with people aren’t valuable and meaningful in their own right. Maia’s journey moved me, and it was lovely to see him find peace and camaraderie at the end.

Bits I (really, really) liked:
He was perversely pleased to see that it was possible to startle her. “If you did not marry. What would you do instead?”
“We thank you, Serenity, but we do not expect you to be interested in our foolish, daydreaming ambitions.”
It was the most words he’d gotten out of her at one time. Maia smiled gently and, taking a leaf from her book, simply waited in silence.
She gave him a bitter look when she realized he would neither speak until she did nor dismiss her from his presence, then said in a small, defiant voice, a sudden hint of what she would have been like as a child, “We would study the stars.”
“The stars?”
“Yes, Serenity,” she said, and it suddenly struck him as ludicrous and demeaning that a woman of twenty-eight should be subject to the judgment of a half brother ten years younger than herself.
He said, “Then you should.”
From the stricken way they all stared at him—Vedero, Csevet, Cala, Beshelar—he realized that he had said the wrong thing again. There was a painful silence; Maia felt his face heating. It was Vedero who squared her shoulders and said, “Serenity, you need our marriage.”
“But if it is not what you wish…”
“Serenity, you have few enough bargaining chips. Do not throw one away. You cannot afford to wait until Ino and Mireän are of age.”
“But with whom are we bargaining?”
“The world, Serenity,” Vedero said sadly.

He was not stupid and he was not incapable. He remembered the moment when his thoughts had inverted themselves—that shift from not being able to please everyone to not trying—and the way that change had enabled him to see past the maneuverings and histrionics of the representatives to the deeper structures of the problem, and it was the same with the Corazhas. The surface of their words, which intimidated him so much he had all but given up, was not what he needed to see.
Maybe I can do this, he thought, and he slept better that night than he had expected to.

“Have we other aunts?” He did not need to ask about uncles; even an illegitimate son of the Great Avar of Barizhan would have been brought to the emperor’s attention.
“Three others,” Merrem Vizhenka said. “We doubt your mother knew of them, any more than she knew of us. It is only since her death that the Avar has chosen to acknowledge us. Your aunt Ursu is a sea captain’s wife; your aunt Holitho is in the Convent of the Lighthouse Keepers in Urvekh’; and your aunt Shaleän, the oldest of the Avar’s daughters, ran away in her youth, disguised herself as a boy, and became a sailor. She is now a sea captain, and in truth no one in Barizhan quite knows what to do with her. The Avar acknowledges her, but he does not discuss her.”

One of her friends was translating the Barizheise poet Amu Carcethlened, who had written fabulous adventure tales about the voyages of the steamship Lion of Orpezhkhahar. Another friend was writing a treatise on the principles of inheritance as observed from her family’s millennium-worth of horsebreeding records. Another had started an unofficial school for girls with mazeise talents. There were others and others, and at some point Vedero said, “Of course, when we say ‘friend,’ we do not necessarily mean that we like the person particularly. We mean that they share with us the belief that women can and should do the same intellectual work as men.” Her shoulders were stiffly defensive, and Maia wondered what she expected him to say.
Except that he knew. She expected condemnation, or to be told that it was all very well for a hobby, but the only work women were fitted for was the bearing of children. He said, gently, “We would be honored to meet your friends—both those you like and those you don’t.”
She swung around so forcefully to stare at him that she nearly knocked Cala into the railings. “You are serious,” she said, not quite a question, but not quite a statement either.
“We were not considered worth educating, either,” Maia said.
She bowed her head and said, “We take your point, Serenity.”
It was not friendship he found with Idra and Vedero—either in the usual sense or in her particular sense—but it was something that was like friendship, kinship in a metaphorical rather than a literal fashion, something that was maybe as close as an emperor could get.
They read it too: A Dribble of Ink


Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%. I downloaded a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.


  1. I have this, too. I just died in the reading department lately. I must get to it!

  2. Okay, I know it sounds trite to say "This sounds freakin' amazing!!!" but I have to say it anyway--because it does. It sounds sooooo freakin' amazing!!!

  3. This sounds so good! Definitely going on my list. And thanks for the link to Addison's Big Idea post--that was a great read. :)

  4. I like that the author has taken time to examine the lack of friendship that can accompany any position of power, that examines the isolation instead of just mentioning it.

    I will look for The Goblin Emperor.

  5. You and Anastasia! I ordinarily wouldn't look twice at a book with "Goblin" in the title, but you and Anastasia have now both raved about this book. I'm won over. I'll get it as soon as my library orders a copy.

  6. Kelly: Yes you must :P

    Debi: Not trite at all!

    Laura: Wasn't it? I always enjoy the Big Ideas series, but this is one of the best I've read in a while.

    Jenclair: I don't think you'll be disappointed - that's a huge part of the book!

    Jenny: And Memory too! Memory wrote the awesome, in-depth review I wish I could have written. Don't worry, Addison's characters are miles away from Tolkien-like simplistic Goblins. I hope your library gets it soon!

  7. I immediately added this to the wish list. I've been missing books like this, so thanks for the suggestion.

  8. This feels like a book that I ought to read soon, especially since I consume a lot of TV series steeped in court intrigue and wonder why I don't read enough books with similar content. You make it sound really compelling and the story seems to have elements I would like (the personal angle... and basically everything you mentioned)
    Thanks for the usual smart review!

  9. This, this, all of this (which, by the way, is the awesome, in-depth review I wish I could have written).

    I loved the book on every single level, but I think my favourite thing about it is that it feels like something that'll only get better each time I revisit it. There's so much to unpack here; so many wonderful subtleties. I know I'll notice new things every time I reread it, and I look forward to doing so many, many times over the coming years.

  10. Man, you and Memory BOTH wrote the review I wanted to write! Such a good boooook omg I am dying from lack of more books like The Goblin Emperor.


  11. I've had the book for a week and I've read it twice, and loved it more the second time, for all the reasons mentioned in the review but also because I like Maia do much. Plus the world: I really hope Addison writes other stories set in this world. Maia's story is complete, but there's room, it seems to me...

    Anyway, I love this book and I hope it finds a wide, wide audience.


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