I can’t remember how this truly excellent fantasy novel found its way into our house. We know it was at EasterCon this year, but while my husband claims the credit for buying it, I’m not sure. Maybe I looked at it so often in the Books on the Hill bookstall that I merely think that I bought it. Regardless, it is fantastic (ho ho), and I truly hope that Sarah Monette, the author behind the Katherine Addison pseudonym, will be adding new stories to the beguiling world she has created in The Goblin Emperor.
‘The messenger was maybe a year or so older than Maia himself, but elegant even in his road-stained leathers. He was clearly full-blooded elvish, as Maia was not; his hair was milkweed pale, and his eyes the colour of rain. He looked from Setheris to Maia, and said: “Are you the Archduke Maia Drazhar, the only child of Varenechibel the Fourth and Chenelo Drazharan?”
‘Yes,” said Maia, bewildered.
And then bewilderment compounded bewilderment, as the messenger deliberately and with perfect dignity prostrated himself on the threadbare rug.
“Your Imperial Serenity,” he said.’
And with that text-book deployment of the Harry Potter opening gambit (emotionally neglected teenager enters into an extraordinary new life), we enter a beautifully elaborate world of complex politics and even more complex names. The novel actually begins with short and instructive ‘Extracts from A Handbook for Travelers in the Elflands’, which are ostensibly about pronunciation of names, but function as a good introduction to the cultures and norms of the neighbouring elvish and goblin kingdoms in which the novel is set.
The novel begins by establishing that Maia, who is 18, and living alone with his guardian Setheris, is a son of the Emperor who wants nothing to do with him, and is a kind, lonely and very unhappy boy. His mother the banished empress died ten years earlier, and his cousin Setheris is a bully but also an extremely good tutor on court etiquette and the principles of good law and government. Then Maia ascends the throne, most unexpectedly, and begins to learn how to manage a power vacuum and a very fractious aristocracy circling around the Untheileneise Court like sharks. He also learns that he is unnaturally bereft of kindness and friendship, and his education has been deliberately neglected in the most important aspects of imperial rule.
But, he has supporters, and he earns his friends. He finds the perfect all-knowing political secretary, social protector and etiquette guide in Csevet, the messenger who first acclaimed him. His nohecharei and edocharei are more than servants; they are his bodyguards, spiritual doctors, valets and the nearest thing he can have as friends. They are all a little older than he is (he’s 18), and so this tight knot of young elvish men surround and support Maia as he slowly crafts his way to becoming the Emperor Edrehasivar VII.
This is a novel about forbearance and cautious empathy, about learning to do politics with common sense and kindness rather than vitriol and flattery. The personalities Maia encounters are all charming and/or menacing; the problems his realm faces have more to do with trade disputes and protocol panics than violent invasion, and are all the more fascinating for it, since everything is at a personal level. There are no vast armies, or immense swathes of country to lay waste, just politicians jostling for advantage. The names are bogglingly long, but since Maia is learning who all these Heads of Houses are, and their complicated families, we just jog along in his wake and learn them too.
Elvish and goblin women have as strong a part to play in Maia’s education as the men he encounters. While they do not rule in their own right, women have equal participation in all the crafts and arts. While not Heads of House, some of the female politicians are more dramatically effective than the men in causing change by their choices and actions, and the future Empress looks likely to be a ferocious duellist.
It’s an eighteenth-century sort of world, but with airships, and is early steampunkish in its embrace of technologies. It is also utterly fixated on social and court protocol, the right kind of jewels and veil to wear in the hair when awaiting audience in the right kind of room for a particular category of suppliant. Everyone speaks in the third person, and using informal second or first is a token of great favour, or insult.
It’s the world-building, ultimately, that beguiles the reader’s socks off. Addison’s refusal to use violence and aggressive action in her political framework is nicely mirrored in the actions of this very new Emperor, who is not vengeful or vindictive when he, of all the people in his kingdom, has the most right to be. I’m just going to go back and read it all over again.
The Goblin Emperor was first published in 2014, and is available in paperback from Solaris Books. It won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel in 2015, and was nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards.