Some weeks ago, Heloise told me about The Goblin Emperor, which she’d just finished reading (she posted a review earlier today). She knows that I’ve just finished a very intense period at work, and urged me to track down this book for some light relief. This friendly urging was repeated several times with increased insistence, to which I finally gave in; and I’m delighted I did. At the weekend, free at last, I curled up to read and was very quickly charmed. This is a delightfully heart-warming book: a feast of intrigue with a well-meaning, appealing and thoughtful protagonist at its core.
I should emphasise my gratitude to Heloise, because I wouldn’t have chosen this book off my own back. I tend to shy away from elves and goblins and unpronounceable names (many of which appear in the first few pages here), but I have to stress that my fears were entirely unfounded. The culture clash between the different races adds political spice, but this is fundamentally a story about generosity and the will to do good. It is a story about people, and the fact that none of them are actually human is largely incidental.
Maia is eighteen years old: the youngest and least favoured son of the elf Emperor Varenechibel IV. The Emperor, who set aside Maia’s goblin mother, has no interest in his half-breed son who, since his mother’s death ten years ago, has been brought up in an out-of-the-way country retreat, under the tutelage of his impatient and unyielding cousin Setheris. Maia knows nothing of the court – indeed, he knows very little about anything at all. But then an imperial courier arrives late one night with shocking news. Maia’s father the Emperor, along with Maia’s three elder brothers and his nephew, has died in an airship crash, leaving Maia the heir to the imperial throne. With no idea how to rule or who to trust, Maia can only follow his own instincts, his sense of duty and his desire to do the right thing – and the last two, if not the first, lead him to the court and the crown.
It is not a smooth transition. Maia swiftly realises that out-of-sight really does mean out-of-mind. His arrival and, indeed, his very existence, are clearly a shock for many people, not least the ambitious Lord Chancellor Chavar and Maia’s newly-bereaved sister-in-law Sheveän, whose son Idra is next in line. Drawing on all his reserves of grace and diplomacy, Maia must find a way to establish himself in the face of resentment and mockery; and, in an effort to break away from the legacy of his hated father, must create an inner circle of his own. Lonely, confused and desperate for guidance, he longs for friends – the one luxury an emperor is not supposed to have. But as Maia begins to set things in place, with as much tact and dignity as he can manage, he begins to find that he is not alone. With the devoted assistance of his secretary Csevet, and his nohecharei bodyguards Beshelar and Cala, he begins to make his mark on a realm which little appreciates how greatly it needs him.
One of the chief things I demand of a fantasy novel, you might remember, is that it should have good world-building; and that’s one area where this book triumphs. It’s refreshing to find something which isn’t simply based on medieval Europe: there is more of medieval Japan here, I think, with the elaborate robes and hairdressing, the generals who wear masks and the elaborate protocols. However there’s also a rather wonderful steampunk element, with airships and steam power, automatons and pneumatic tubes to send messages. As a reader you’re thrown straight in at the deep end, suddenly faced with all these strange terms and ranks and forms of address, and you are left to find your way through on your own. As you read more, it gradually makes sense until, by the end, you actually have a pretty good grasp of the social structure, customs and political factions in what I must say is a very dense and beautifully detailed world. (Heloise kindly pointed out to me today that there is in fact a glossary in the back of the book, but I think in retrospect that I enjoyed it more, having to figure it all out for myself.)
Being the kind of person who enjoys words, I’d also picked up some of the rules of the language and was having fun puzzling out the suffixes found in names and titles. I also found it interesting that Addison used the archaic informal mode of address (thee, thou, etc.) as well as the archaic formal (you, your) as a way of immediately signalling the relationship between two characters. Moreover, characters talking formally always refer to themselves in the first-person plural (i.e. we, our) so that when someone uses ‘I’ or ‘me’ you’re struck by the intimacy of it, as the listener would be too. In this way you find yourself inadvertently understanding more about the culture.
The choice of address also shows – very gracefully, without the author hammering the point home – how someone might try to show affection for someone else, or to offer a closer friendship by dropping their guard. It is so, so difficult to do this well in English (one of the few areas in which I feel my language is inferior to others). There were a couple of points where it didn’t quite work, and one occasion where Addison forgot herself and used a ‘you’ in the middle of an informal discussion, but overall it was an extremely clever device. It adds extra depths to the characterisation, too. Maia is always adorable, but when you see his constant inner desire to be ‘me’ not ‘we’, your heart goes out to him, because the very language he’s forced to use gets in the way of building relationships with those around him. However, he’s a delightful, warm and caring person; so all you can do is trust that he finds a way through. (And, really, when was the last time you read about a character who manages to be all that and not simultaneously irritating or bland?).
As soon as I finished the book I wanted to go back and start it all over again; and I shall certainly be re-reading it. It is very probably one of those novels which you appreciate more as you read it more, and it’s rare to finish a book with such a glow of well-being and contentment as I did here. Perhaps in a year or so I’ll read this post again and wonder that I didn’t give it a higher rating. But I can already see that it’s a little gem of a novel: witty, touching, and full of a radiant humanity, and I really hope that Addison is planning a sequel. I can’t deny that the odd flash of devilry in a character always sparks my interest, but nevertheless Maia won me over entirely. He’s one of the most lovable and admirable figures I’ve come across for a long time. and I’d love to read more about him. Very much recommended.
A by-the-by to finish: Heloise tells me that Katherine Addison is a pseudonym for the author Sarah Monette, who has already written several very popular fantasy novels. I haven’t actually read any of them yet, although Heloise is a fan. From the scattered preview pages I’ve read, they seem to be in a rather different spirit from this; and I’ll be interested to see what others who’ve read her earlier books make of The Goblin Emperor.
Oh, and another by-the-by. Is it just me or is there a distinct Metropolis vibe to the cover? It rather amused me and, even if it’s entirely accidental, it’s a very subtle way to make the point that this certainly isn’t your average fantasy novel. A round of applause to the cover designers Anna and Elena Balbusso.