Sunday, June 21, 2015

A big hug from the golden age of high fantasy: Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor

I kicked off my reading of the 2015 Hugo shortlist with the biggest but also potentially the most pleasurable job - the novels. See here for some thoughts on an overall approach to reviewing the Hugo's in light of this year's controversy.

Wow. I thought they'd stopped making them like this.

Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor is a big, warm hug from the golden age of high fantasy, retooled for a contemporary audience, but still recognisably the kind of book that 16-year old me would have loved.

Twenty years or so later, with broader tastes than in my Tolkien-fueled youth, I still found myself enjoying it a great deal. It's the one novel on the Hugo shortlist I'm recommending widely and without qualification - which points to one of its key strengths: accessibility.

It's also worth noting that it is one of the minority of nominees there without being on a voting slate - so it's safe to say a lot of people liked it enough to independently put it forward for consideration.

The emperor of the title is Maia, the youngest son of an elvish dynasty and sole fruit of a political marriage with a goblin princess from a neighbouring country. In internal exile to the sticks for most of his childhood, he unexpectedly ascends to the imperial throne following an apparent accident that wipes out his father and half his family. 

Maia soon finds himself forced to grow up quickly amid the intrigues and elaborate traditions of the court, with resentful relatives and powerful nobles only waiting for him to turn his back before plotting his overthrow. 

So The Goblin Emperor is a Bildungsroman, high fantasy style, and goodness knows we've had a lot of those. But there's no Eddings-style chosen one wish-fulfilment trip for our protagonist here. The book is at pains to stress just how little freedom to act Maia actually has as a young monarch without training or allies, trapped by palace rituals he doesn't fully understand. 

Addison is acute - without a shred of didacticism - on other causes of marginalisation, like gender, class and sexuality. Given the title of her book, it's also no surprise to find she has fantastic racism in her sights, with Maia's rule called into question due to his dual heritage and darker skin. 

But his greatest challenge is one any young adult can empathise with: how can he adapt to and survive in this complex, adult world without losing his essential self? 

It's significant here that Maia resolves his dilemmas largely through strength of character than by brute force. And it's also a tribute to Addison's writing that both his internal life and responses in a crisis are presented with empathy and conviction.

A few words also in praise of The Goblin Emperor's world-building, which does a great job of ducking the usual cliches. There may be elves and goblins, sure, but these are baroque creatures, caught between aristocratic tradition on the one hand and industrialisation on the other. 

And while the lavishly described elven court could have easily gone full Versailles or else become a orientalist concoction, Addison blends her own ideas and historical influences together to present something both fish and fowl. And it's all the better for it.

Much to my own surprise, this book has made this jaded reader feel there's life for traditional high fantasy yet. That, beyond the absurdities of grimdark and the return of the Weird, there's a place for gently revisionist work to do something new with old tropes.

I haven't yet decided where my vote will go, but this is definitely one to beat.


  1. "Yes" to this feeling like the best sort of throwback. This sort of leisurely, detailed novel hasn't flourished since the 1930s, and likewise few writers since the 30s can use formality with such complete confidence...

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    For me, the decades TGE harked back to were the 70's and 80's and works that were clearly post-LOTR but written before epic fantasy seemed to get very codified. Interesting that you'd go back further. :)

    If we're stepping outside of genre when you compare TGE's leisurely pace and attention to detail to early 20C novels and earlier then I think I know what you mean.