I just finished reading Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, one of the novels shortlisted for this year’s Hugo awards. It’s a book that answers a question I’ve asked many times at the end of other fantasies: What happened after the protagonist unseated the Bad King and took the throne for himself? How did he turn the ship of state around?
Maia is the disregarded fourth son of the Emperor of the Elflands, and a half-goblin to boot. He has been raised in exile from the court, and seems fated to live his entire life relegated to a remote manor, except that an airship accident kills his father and three elder brothers. Maia is hastily crowned Emperor, though he was never trained to rule and does not understand the motives and intrigues of his father’s courtiers. He struggles to overcome his abusive upbringing while facing down the daily conflicts that his imperial duties entail. When he discovers that the airship crash was an act of sabotage, he quickly realizes that the unknown assassins must be planning to murder him next.
Among all the SF novels I can think of, this one has the best portrayal of an imaginary government. Fantasy kings and emperors have a bad habit of shirking actual work. At best, their role is usually limited to sitting in a great hall and hearing the occasional petition. Not Maia. He’s thrown into an empire with a fully-developed cabinet, parliament and chancery, which he has to learn to navigate. There are real problems to solve, and they look very different from the perspectives of different stakeholders. As a former aide to politicians, all this warms my tiny, twisted heart.
Other reviewers have also noted how the story touches on subjects of race, class and gender in a nuanced way, without losing narrative momentum. I think the female characters were particularly well done. As writers, we’re so often tempted to fall into the old character tropes of either the “sexy lampshade” who could be replaced by an object without affecting the plot, or the superwoman, who faces no obstacles to her hyper-empowerment. Addison gently reminds us that there are hundreds of points in between those two poles. From the spoiled princess Sheveän, to the opera singer Nedäo Vechin, to Suler the nursery maid, they make excellent examples of how to write women who have personality and agency, even in a society where they have little power.
Maia himself is a character of a type that has become all too rare in the fantasy genre lately: the kindly protagonist. He is genuinely concerned for the well-being of those around him. His attitude manifests as small thank-yous and grander demonstrations of imperial mercy. Nevertheless, he’s more than a one-dimensional goody-goody. Time and again, he’s faced with the realization that when you’re in a position of power, you can be cruel merely by being oblivious.
Paradoxically, I think characterization is also the book’s main weakness. I count 164 named characters, not including gods and horses, and some eighty-odd of these people have speaking parts. While I recognize that the tradition of epic casts goes back to Homer, I don’t think it serves this story very well.
You never really get to know much about any one character except Maia himself. When someone close to him betrays him and subsequently commits suicide, you realize that this character has never been described and has not uttered a single word up until now. The complete opacity of the character’s motives–and the suspicion that the author is cheating–combine to suck some of the emotion out of an otherwise powerful death scene.
The detachment is exacerbated by a complex system of naming and honorifics. Characters are often referred to by their title and surname, but later in the book might be called by their personal name. Similar sounding names like Sheveän, Shaleän, Mireän and Nemiriän abound. Time and again, I stopped cold in my reading to ask Wait, who is that? Have we met this person before?
Fortunately, the book comes with a list of characters, or I would have been completely lost. Even when Maia names his closest associates near the end of the story, there was one name I had to hunt down in sixteen pages of appendix before I recognized it.
Despite its flaws, the story moved me enough to make me go back and read choice parts over again after I had finished it. Depending on how I feel about The Three-Body Problem, which I still need to read, it may still be my first choice for the Hugos this year.