Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Review: The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

a review by Rich Horton

Some little way through The Goblin Emperor I had a thought -- this book's main character is "the Ted Lasso of Emperors". This won't mean much to those who have not seen the TV series Ted Lasso (in which case, my first recommendation is: See it now!) Ted Lasso is about a man hired to coach an English football team who is woefully unprepared for the job (he's an American football coach, which is the lame joke that inspired the series -- but the series is NOT about that joke.) Ted Lasso, with the help of a loyal assistant, and despite the open hostility of his players and many of the local supporters, manages to succeed (to a degree) simply by being unfailingly kind. The Goblin Emperor, then, is about Maia, a half goblin who becomes Emperor of the Elflands despite no preparation, and who faces open hostility from many of his subjects and from many of the people who should be helping him, but who succeeds mostly by being unfailingly kind.

The other thing that came to mind was the novels of Anthony Trollope, mostly because of Trollope's fascination with manners and with political minutiae, but to a degree because the steampunkish and also the monarchy plus nobles social structure in The Goblin Emperor is not entirely unlike Trollope's England. And also because if Jo Walton can do Trollope with dragons (in the thoroughly delightful Tooth and Claw) then why can't Katherine Addison do Trollope with elves and goblins?

I am, to be sure, late to the party with this book -- after all, it won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and was nominated for the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, all this back when it was published in 2014. What can I say? I am perpetually behind on my novel reading! I should also mention that "Katherine Addison" is a pseudonym for Sarah Monette, who has published a number of fine novels and excellent shorter work under her own name (I am particularly fond of her Kyle Murchison Booth stories, and her collaborations with Elizabeth Bear such as "Boojum".) One of my recent stratagems for catching up on novels is listening to audiobooks, and so with The Goblin Emperor, which I "read" in the narration by Kyle McCarley.

To briefly summarize the plot: Maia is the youngest son of the Emperor Verinechebel of the Elflands. Maia's mother was a goblin, and their unhappy marriage was purely political. She was "relegated" soon after Maia's birth, and so Maia never knew his father, nor the court. His mother died when she was 8, and he was raised thereafter by his much older cousin, who has been punished in essence (we eventually learn) for political reasons. This cousin is bitter, and very abusive to Maia.

Then there is an airship accident, and Verinechebel is killed along with all Maia's older half-brothers. He becomes the heir, and is summoned to court to take up his duties. He is confronted with a very hostile Lord Chancellor, and a great deal of suspicion by most of the court, not to mention a fair amount of prejudice due to his half-goblin ancestry. (In this world, it is clear, goblins and elves are the same species, just different races.) Fortuitously, he is able to hire as secretary the courier who brought the news of his elevation, and this man, Csevet, proves to be invaluable and very loyal.

Maia, then, must navigate a passel of issues, some personal, some political. These include the investigation into the airship crash that killed his father (which of course is quickly proven not to be accidental), confrontations with severely jealous relatives like his sister-in-law Chevien, who believes her son to be the rightful Emperor; and his quasi stepmother, Verinechebel's last wife Csoru. Likewise there is the question of his necessary upcoming marriage; and of the supposed necessity of his half-sister's marriage. There are political questions, in this book ultimately revolving around the issue of a proposed bridge across a major river. There is the desire of his grandfather, the Avar of the Goblins, who wishes to visit. His Lord Chancellor continues to obstruct him. His infatuation with an opera singer threatens, perhaps, scandal. And, eventually, he faces two separate assassination attempts. And his reaction, throughout, is to listen, to try to understand the other person, to do the unexpectedly kind thing.

Some of this description may make the book seem full of incident and action, but it really isn't -- it's mostly court intrigue, lots of talk, the occasional revelation of a dark backstory. And I was gripped throughout. I was completely absorbed, and very moved. I loved this novel.

And yet I must admit it's far from perfect. Part of the issue is that Maia -- delightful character though he is -- is perhaps a bit too perfect. Part is that he is really quite lucky -- in most any real life comparable situation he'd have been crushed. And the details of the plot do take on aspects of cliche. (That said, another complaint I've seen -- that there are too many weird words -- strikes me as wrongheaded. Perhaps aided by the narration, I found the words (names, titles, buildings, etc.) delightful -- strange but comprehensible, and greatly adding to the atmosphere.) As "fantasy", it's marginal. There is a touch of magic, but not a lot. The elves and goblins aren't really all that elflike or goblinlike, though I did like their ears -- really, as I said, they are stand ins for different races. (Not that that is really a problem.)

Bottom line -- this is in a certain way a comfort read. In that sense it makes us feel good -- by showing us that a good person can make a difference. I might not always (cynical old me) believe that, at least not to this extent, but I'd like to, and for the space of this novel I did. A good novel, a fun novel, a great read. Not a great novel, but that's not always what we need.


  1. ". . . in most any real life comparable situation he'd have been crushed." I disagree. In comparable situations in real history it seems that people around the incompetent ruler fall into two groups: ones that want to gain power by helping him/her and ones that want to gain power by taking advantage of his/her weakness. The rulers who got crushed seem to be the ones who never wanted power (or were to foolish to fail to realize they couldn't handle it). But there are plenty of infant kings, like Louis XIV, who grew into their power and were well-served by powerful ministers like Colbert.

    Only in novels do we find the Kafkaesque situation where the novice ruler has no way to decide whom to trust and little reason to trust anyone. That certainly creates tension, but it's crude, and, I claim, unrealistic.

    I was very pleased that The Goblin Emperor had both people who wanted to help him and people who wanted to hurt him, that everyone's motives seemed fairly clear, and that it was fairly easy to tell who was who. It was reasonable that he made the wrong call on one person (and almost died as a result), but more than that would have been oppressive.

    This is a subtle book, and yet it manages to create tension in sophisticated ways. I'm still sad it didn't win the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

    1. Fair enough, Greg. Still, in the (fictional) situation he's in, Maia seems lucky to have avoided death -- as even he implies when he tells Csevet that if he were disloyal the plot against Maia would have been much better executed.