I should really start booklogging again, shouldn’t I?
Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor is a standalone fantasy novel that was nominated, on its own merits, for a Hugo this year. As the first novel under a new name by Sarah Monette, I was quite looking forward to it; and I enjoyed it very much, though it is certainly not for everyone.
The main thing to know about this book is that it is a story of one person’s growth and development, specifically Maia’s journey from the despised fourth son of an emperor, raised in isolation and near-ignorance, to an effective Emperor after an airship explosion kills his father and his three older brothers. There are subplots in which things happen, but the book is about Maia; this gives it a somewhat unusual shape, which is why it’s useful to know that up-front.
(The secondary thing to know is that if you, like me, have trouble with decoding the meanings of names—I was too sleep-deprived the first time through and thought the variants on titles were personal names, so I could not figure out who anyone was after a certain point in the book—there’s an appendix that explains things.)
This is a single-volume kingdom-level fantasy, populated entirely by non-humans (distinctly non-mythic elves and goblins; Maia’s mother was a goblin, which is one of the reasons his elf father despised him), set at the start of industrialization, all of which are refreshing changes from multi-volume medievaloid epics. But the setting also leads to some intrinsic awkwardness about the very premise. Maia’s journey is a fantasy of political agency, but—as in-book revolutionaries remind us—no matter how much Maia tries to improve politics by promoting voices that had been marginalized, the system he sits atop is still one that denies legitimate political agency to the majority of people. Of course this is a problem that all novels about the triumph of non-elected rulers have, but (perhaps unfairly) The Goblin Emperor‘s very recognition of the problem made it more prominent in my experience of the book. Not so much that I didn’t enjoy myself, but it was still a little weird.
One criticism I’ve heard is that Maia is too nice. I think that the book is careful to show the effort it takes him, and the reasons he prioritizes empathy, but I recognize that mileage could reasonably vary on this. (Also, I’d much prefer to cut people slack for being perhaps unrealistically nice than the reverse.) Another is that the opening is pretty slow; I was drawn in by Maia’s emotions as he’s suddenly thrust into being Emperor with almost none of the knowledge he needs, but if the opening doesn’t inspire similar feelings in you, you may find it rough going.
I did enjoy this a lot, especially on the second time through when I’d figured out the names. More, on balance, I think it is more successful as a single book than Ancillary Sword. I look forward to reading The Three-Body Problem, the last Hugo nominee for Best Novel I intend to read [*], and seeing how I’ll rank this category overall.