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[personal profile] mtvessel
Oct 2015
The Goblin Emperor - Katherine Addison - Tor, 2014 (Kindle edition)

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This book has popped up on a number of award lists but has only won one of them. I can understand why. Its world-building is detailed and it features an unusually decent and therefore sympathetic protagonist (grimdark this is not). However, a number of the flaws of modern fantasies - an obsession with first-person viewpoint and vagueness about religion, history and geography - combine with some cloth-eared decisions about style to make this more of a chore to read than it should be.

The sympathetic protagonist is Maia Drazhar, a young half-elf, half-goblin who is the unloved fourth heir of Varenechibel IV, the emperor of the Elflands. Brought up in ignorance and exile by his cruel cousin Setheris, he is unwillingly catapulted into the emperorship when his father and three elder brothers are killed in an airship crash. Coming to the Untheilisene Court, the historic seat of power of the Elflands, he must learn to negotiate the intrigues of court life while fighting off the machinations of those who would undermine his rule and the loneliness that his high position entails.

There is quite a bit to like in the setting. The peoples are elves or goblins, with no homo sapiens in sight. While both have a largely human appearance and emotions, there are some nice little alien touches, like having to control the movements of your ears to avoid giving away your emotions. The tech level is higher than is often the case for high fantasy, but the introduction of steampunk elements such as airships into a medieval environment didn't feel out of place (World of Warcraft has a lot to answer for). The social structure of the Elflands is unusually elaborate for an American novel, with class distinctions very much in place. Although the story is set entirely in the environs of the Court, the lives and concerns of minorities and the poor are given an airing. The characterisation is strong - Maia is a little too good to be true (particularly as a barely-post-adolescent teenager), but shows just enough fallibility to be interesting.

However, the world-building is seriously incomplete and unbalanced. Addison's approach is clearly modelled on Tolkien's, with a strong emphasis on philology, but Tolkien also had detailed maps and hundreds of pages of stories and legends. Here, history and geography are vague. There have been 208 Emperors of the Elflands, so thousands of years of history, but we get no sense of the major historical events and how they impact the present. Some basic questions are never answered. Who or what founded the Elflands and Barizhan (the goblin kingdom)? Presumably there have been wars - what happened and what were the consequences?

Likewise with geography. How big are the Elflands? Where are the seas? Various outer provinces governed by rebellious lords are mentioned - where are they and how long does it take for messages to get to and fro? Do they control access to important resources? A simple map would have sufficed to answer all these questions. As it is, the reader is left with them nagging at the back of their mind.

Religion is described as important, but the gods and the beliefs about them are mostly ill-characterised. The religious leaders appear to be apolitical, which is both unconvincing and a missed opportunity to add another dimension to the court politics.

Where Addison does go to town on the world-building, she goes too far. There are over a thousand foreign names, some of them very similar-sounding and hard to remember. The spelling and pronunciation rules are consistent, which is welcome, but the guide that explains them is at the back of the book rather than being an introduction. It was irritating to discover I had been mentally mispronouncing the names of several of the characters.

There is an interesting attempt to convey status using modes of speech, but as modern English does not support such distinctions, it comes at the expense of clarity and elegance of prose. The royal "we" is used for formal speech, "thee" and "thou" for family members and close confidantes, and "you" for everything else. The mode sometimes switches several times in one chapter and is confusing and hard to read, particularly for non-Quaker British readers for whom "thee" and "thou" have the formal connotations of the King James Bible.

Similarly for the characterisation. Addison has tried to reproduce the complexity of a mediaeval court, but this means that there are dozens of minor characters who are little more than a name and a single defining characteristic. I was very glad I could use the lookup function on my e-reader to keep track of who was who. This vagueness extends to the villains, who are utterly unmemorable. Maia himself is too nice and deferential to social convention to be much of an active protagonist. As a result, the plot is high on talk and low on things happening. There are only two sequences that could even vaguely be described as action.

So all in all, an interesting and unusual take on high fantasy, but lacking in some important respects. Copying Tolkien's approach to world-building is a good way for a new fantasy writer to start, but Addison still has a lot to learn from him.
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