The author of this novel used to publish as Sarah Monette, and under that name wrote one of my all-time favourite Fantasy series, The Doctrine of Labyrinths. So I came to The Goblin Emperor with very high expectations and some trepidations as to whether the book would live up to the author’s previous ones.
The Goblin Emperor shares with her earlier work that it has a strange but believable setting – this time it is elves and steam power. Not your common garden or even forest variety of elves, though, that dance and frolic in the forest or under some hill. Instead, most of the novel takes place in a sprawling city-palace which reminded me of the Forbidden City, as indeed the elves in this novel appear to owe a lot more to Imperial China than to Tolkien or Irish folklore. And time does not stand still in this world, things are happening and among them is technical progress. The elf of the world travels not on horseback but in dirigbles, and the novel’s events are set in motion when one of them crashes, killing the entire Imperial family that was on board. Well, not the entirely family, as it turns out…
Quite different from her earlier work however is this novel’s protagonist, an elf-goblin halfling and fourth son of the current elf emperor – who suddenly finds himself elevated to be emperor himself when the rest of his family dies in the above mentioned dirigible accident. The unusual thing about Maia is that he is a thoroughly nice guy – it’s a rarity these days (and this holds tru not just for Fantasy novels) to find a main character that is actually fundamenally good and well-meaning, and it’s also risky because such a character can very easily become very boring. Katherine Addison avoids that by having him grow up very isolated and somewhat traumatised – as a result he is very clueless and insecure when he arrives at the Elven court and very often has to struggle to make his good intentions work (and quite often fails at it).
And this is what the book is about, Maia’s attempts to come to terms with the new role that has been imposed upon him, and slowly growing into it. There are no fight scenes in this novel, no battles, barely any violence at all. There is no world to be saved, no evil overlord to be vanquished or evil empire to be crushed. There is a bit of mystery (it turns out the dirigible accident that made Maia emperor was not an accident after all), but mostly it is lots and lots of court intrigue and even more character study of a young man who is in way over his head but trying very hard to do what is right.
That could have turned into a very boring book; that it is an utterly intriguing, compelling read is due to mainly two factors. For one thing, as Katherine Addison has proven with her Doctrine of Labyrinths, she is a very deft hand at creating convincing characters, and The Goblin Emperor proves once again that the only other Fantasy author equal in that regard is Robin Hobb. Seriously, a reader who does not feel for and with Maia, his trials and tribulations, his earnest attempts at being a good emperor, a reader who does not at least get moist eyes every time he shows his deep love for his deceased mother – simply has no heart at all. The other thing is Katherine Addison‘s writing which has gotten even better compared to her previous novels – the language appears very unassuming at first, but if you look closer you begin to notice how highly polished it is, how images, rythm, cadence form a perfect whole that draws readers gently in and carries them along. Thanks to this, Katherine Addison manages to take many of the most tired High Fantasy tropes, turn and twist them into something new and fresh and utterly unrecognizable and use them to build a Fantasy novel that is unlikely any other that I have ever read but still stays true to the spirit of the thing, the belief that there is an essential goodness in man and that no matter how dark things look that there always is a silver lining. And this without even getting close to appearing trite but by gifting her readers with many hours of unmitigated, squee-inducing reading delight. This is undoubtedly one of the best Fantasy novel of the year, if not decade, and everyone with even the faintest interest in the genre really owes it to themselves to get the novel and share in its joy.