The Goblin Emperor

Katherine Addison
The Goblin Emperor Cover

The Goblin Emperor


The upside of the current combination of T-shattering weather and my own personal broke-ness has had one excellent upside: I'm finally getting around to reading a bunch of the books that have been up near the top of my Have To Read ASAP list for months. This includes The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (apparently an alias for Sarah Monette), which I bought way back in July with every intent of getting on it as soon as I could. It came highly recommend by a lot of people whose tastes often run similar to mine, and the basic premise of "court intrigue with steampunk elves" definitely piqued my interest! There are many more fun things than that, though.

FUN THING #1: There are no humans in this book. It takes place in the Elflands, where the inhabitants are elves--a white-skinned (paper-white, it sounds like, not just Caucasian-white), white-haired, big-pointy-eared people with kind of a big stick up their collective butt about how imperial their empire is. Their most important neighboring land in this book is inhabited by goblins, who seem to be sort of a subspecies or maybe just a separate ethnic group rather than an entirely different species, since they can (and do) marry and have kids with elves, most often along the border. The elven higher-ups are predictably snobbish about this. Our protagonist is a half-elf half-goblin named Maia, the fourth and youngest--and least-favored--son of the elven emperor, who has grown up in a shabby sort of country estate far away from court. When the emperor and his three older sons are all killed in an airship crash, Maia suddenly finds himself Emperor. He is not really prepared for this, and neither is anyone else.

FUN THING #2: All of the court intrigue and politicking and mannersy stuff. I will admit, I am easy to please on this front because I adore the crap out of fussy court stuff I have no hope of understanding, especially when outsiders are dropped into it and don't understand it either and are all like "oh my god this is ridiculous how do people live like this," and this book does not stint on that front at all. But it's also done really, really well, with a sensitivity towards how it is that people actually do live like that, and it shows our protagonist slowly and painfully learning to master it and to introduce changes to try to make things less toxic. It also gives enough history to paint a picture of not just "courts" and "empire stuff" but specifically of what a court looks like when it starts to go stagnant--there's a real sense that the court may not have always been quite this fussy and ridiculous but that it has sort of ossified somewhere in the last couple of rulers, particularly under Maia's dad, who sounds like not really the most innovative ruler. The reader has to learn how the court and its faction function along with Maia, under the guidance of his fantastic secretary Csevet. It is a delight, and probably not an unrealistic one, that not everybody is actually terrible, but many people are hiding their lights under the bushels of convention.

FUN THING #3: Language. OK, I might just be being a huge dork about this, but apparently the elven language has a more complex system of pronouns than we do. There's a formal and an informal second person, represented, respectively, by "you" and "thou," as English used to. There's also a formal first person, represented by "we," as has also sometimes been done in English--although in the elven language the first-person plural and formal are clearly two distinct pronouns, and sometimes have to be explicitly differentiated in the text. There's also a wonderfully complex system of titles and prefixes and suffixes, where family names are roots that take masculine, feminine, and collective endings. There are basic titles that translate to "Mr.," "Mrs.," and "Miss," essentially, and grander and grander forms of address are built up by piling on prefixes. Maia has to pick a new name to be his emperor name, and he's always addressed as "Serenity," and it's a super big deal for him to let anyone call him by his real name, and it's all SO FUN if you are a big dork about that sort of thing. It does occasionally make it a little confusing to keep the already-large cast of characters straight, but there is a character list at the back, or you can try to slow down and read things more carefully than I usually do these days.

FUN THING #4: Ladies. Our protagonist, Maia, is a dude, because that is how it works in the elven language. The elven society has a pretty patriarchal system in place, but that does not stop the book from having a lot of awesome elf ladies in it, and a few awesome goblin ladies, and Maia is not a jerk at all about it, hooray! I particularly liked the plotline about the elf lady who he picks to be his Empress--an excruciatingly awkward situation in every conceivable way, and one that could easily have gone terribly wrong.

FUN THING #5: Steampunky goodness. The steampunk element of this book is actually fairly understated compared to my other experiences with steampunk writing, which, to be fair, are basically just Gail Carriger and Scott Westerfeld. There are airships and there is an awesome plotline with the Clockmaker's Guild who wish to build a politically important bridge in a place where it's been the accepted wisdom that you can't build a bridge, and Maia is all over bridges, which becomes a nice motif by the end of the story. There's also a message system of "pneumatic tubes" in the castle which I'm imagining as being like a cross between an old-school phone switchboard and the little tubes you used to have at drive-through banks before you had ATMs. (I always found those super fun when I was a kid.)

FUN THING #6: Ears. Most of the facial expressions, body language, etc. that the elves and goblins engage in is described in terms the same as those of humans--they smile, they frown, they pout, they flinch and stiffen and blush and blanche and all those things. BUT. Also their ears move, like they droop when they're sad or go flat when they're angry, and part of putting on your expressionless court face is making sure they don't do any of those things. It's just woven in there like it's the most normal thing in the world and it's ADORABLE.

The main plotline mostly has to do with investigating who killed Maia's family, because it's obvious that that person is after Maia next. Since we don't know who did that for most of the book, the main antagonist for a lot of it is the Lord Chancellor, a pompous man who had been extremely loyal to Maia's father and seems to find it his duty to continue his reign in every possibly, including ignoring and hating Maia. This doesn't work very well, now that Maia is emperor, but that doesn't stop the Lord Chancellor in the slightest.

Overall this book is a bit more serious and dense than I would have expected from "steampunk elves," but not in a bad way--it's very engaging, and it does have enough touches of humor and general charmingness to not be a downer, but it also has enough weight to get me really invested in the plot and in caring about what happens to this realm and wanting Maia's reign to be a success. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes court intrigues of any sort.