Anyone with even a toe in the pool of this year’s Hugo Awards knows that they have become a major contretemps, accelerated by Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory and an apparent dislike of allowing people to have nice things. As with so many things on the Internet, there are a lot of people saying a bunch of stuff very loudly, and as someone who both appreciates the awards and doesn’t necessarily have as much time as I’d like to find new fiction on my own, I find the whole affair unaccountably sad. I mention this only as a backdrop of how I came to be reading The Goblin Emperor, since it’s one of the nominees for Best Novel and got there on its own merit, without being part of any organized campaign. Honestly I had not heard of it before, but when I saw the positive buzz I decided to give it a shot.
The title is misleading – the emperor is only half goblin, he is also half elf. And he’s not the emperor of the goblins, he’s the emperor of the elves. So at that point I got angry that you couldn’t entirely judge the book by the title and cover art, gave up two chapters in, and went off to find some entertainment that would not challenge any of my worldviews or preconceptions, and wrote a 4,000 word essay about how SF/F was better back when I was a boy.
No, wait, that would have been a stupid thing to do. Surely no sensible adult would act that way. Besides, the emperor is the grandson of the actual goblin emperor, it's not entirely misleading.
Anyhow, the titular character Maia Drazhar starts out this novel by finding out that he is now the emperor, which comes as a pretty big shock to him, to his staff (such as it is), and to pretty much everyone else in the entire realm. He’s the fourth son of the current emperor and highly disfavored; he was the product of the emperor’s arranged fourth marriage with the daughter of the actual goblin emperor, who rules the land across the river. His father didn’t really want to enter this marriage and sent his wife into exile as soon as the ceremony was done, but since the ceremony did involve a ritual bedding the emperor had to acknowledge Maia as his son. What he didn’t have to do was interact with him or release him from exile, properly educate him, have him prepared for court life, or generally do a thing for him in any other way. And why would he? The emperor had three older sons and even a couple of grandsons. Maia was at best unnecessary and at worst actively annoying for his father, and it looked as if he would spend his life essentially under house arrest until such time as someone decided to let him leave. Considering that Maia only saw his father once in his entire life, he is not exactly sitting around the house waiting for his recall.
But then there’s an inconvenient airship crash which gets the emperor, the three brothers, and a bunch of crew and staff. And the succession laws of the empire mean that Maia, as an adult son, inherits before his minor nephews, so before you know it he’s on a ship to the capital city to claim his throne, which he didn’t really want, has no particular idea what to do with, and cannot decline.
There’s been a trend in fantasy literature of late to explore the dark and nasty undersides of fantasy universes. In one of those works, Maia (now known as Serenity Edrehasivar VII) would be dead inside of an afternoon by the throng of mercenaries, noblemen and ne’er do wells who lurk just off the page, being squalid. This isn’t one of those stories. However, it also isn’t the sort of story where Maia comes in and changes everything for the better, fights the dragon, rescues the princess, reforms everything overnight, that sort of thing.
The word that comes to mind when trying to describe Maia is decent. He is not by any means stupid, but he’s not highly educated and he isn’t really that prepared for court life. Nonetheless, he recognizes his limitations, and is a good judge of character for the most part, meaning that he both seeks out good advice and follows it, recognizes when he’s doing the wrong thing and seeks to correct himself, and just in general tries to do his best as much as he can, which is limited. He’s not just a figurehead, but much of what he can do is constrained by law and tradition. He’s got a vote in the ruling council, but just one of many; he can break ties, but he can also be outvoted, and the other people in the council don’t go along with him out of awe or anything like that.
Much of the good he accomplishes over the course of the novel is somewhat realistically limited to not ordering people to do things. For instance, as the head of his family he has the right to order one of his half-sisters into a politically advantageous marriage. As he is not entirely certain of the political ramifications of the suitors, he decides to wait a while and actually ask the sister in question on the subject. Doing this is considered subversive, even by the sister, who has no interest in marrying any of the offered candidates and who is implied to maybe not even be into dudes. (The elves practice a form of coverture, so getting married is sort of a potentially raw deal for women even if they are excited about the prospect. Apparently they are usually not consulted.) Later on he is in the position where he could be potentially expected to order various people to commit ritual suicide or to show up at the executions of their family members; he declines to do these actions either.
A great deal of the novel is devoted to the intricacies of the Elvish language; there are different forms of address depending on who is speaking and to whom, and as a result you have to pay close attention or you’ll get tripped up by someone who seems to have three or four different names.
Despite the fact that this novel contains a surprising number of assassinations and attempted coups, this may be the most non-action novel I’ve read in some time. In any sort of assessment, Maia accomplishes very little during the first couple of months of his reign, aside from contracting a marriage of his own and greenlighting an almost-painfully-symbolic construction project. And I’m hard pressed to say that this is a novel of intrigue, since with one conspicuous exception most of the people who are threats to Maia are pretty obviously against him from the beginning, as in, they come right into his office and start talking down to him, or openly insult him, or the like. This is perhaps to make it more easy for poor Maia and his simple nature, I don’t know.
The other thing is that all the plots against Maia are pretty amateur hour. There’s not a lot of wheels within wheels type stuff going on here. The various cabals and plotters are pretty obvious, their plans are not well thought through, and as a rule they do not get very far. Again, there’s one possible exception – the artisan Shulivar, who’s as close to a mastermind as this novel’s got, actually had a pretty good plan and basically succeeded. If he’d been against Maia, then there may have been some trouble. However, if anything he was plotting on Maia’s behalf, not that Maia knew anything about it, or would have approved if he did.
Anyhow, I started out assuming that I would really like this novel, based on the positive buzz, and then was not entirely impressed by the first part. Eventually, I came around, although I can’t exactly explain what persuaded me. It’s pretty good, and an interesting counterpoint to some of the ultra-grimdark fantasy fiction going around these days. I can’t give it an absolutely unqualified recommendation; there’s a lack of tension in much of the confrontations, there are bits that drag on, and the antagonists are a bunch of idiots. Still, if you are looking for some unconventional fantasy fiction and don’t mind checking a glossary a couple of times to remind yourself who’s the emperor’s fiancée and who is his sister, this may be something to check out for summer beach reading.