When I was a baby blogger, I wrote a really nasty post about Sarah Monette’s book Melusine. Years and years of crawly shame spiders have effaced my memory of the details of the post (which I long ago deleted), but I know I said fuck and annoying quite a bit. Sarah Monette subsequently linked to my post from her blog, with a sad frowny-face emoticon, and I felt — and still feel — terribly guilty and ashamed that my thoughtless pique made an author feel bad. Ever since then I’ve been much more cautious about writing resoundingly negative posts — fun though they are — and I try to reserve my fits of pique for people like Stephen Marche who truly deserve them.
All of which to say, my first instinct upon discovering that Katherine Addison, author of The Goblin Emperor (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository), was the same person as Sarah Monette was to avoid the book. You can’t write a bad review for a book you never read! But really, when Anastasia and Ana and Memory all rave about a fantasy book, it is difficult to make the case that I shouldn’t give it a try. Not to mention Dear Author praising it to the skies, and Kim highlighting the undercurrent of social justice and feminism, and Charlotte comparing it to The King of Attolia. I am not blinded by my prejudices, people. I can give things a second chance.
The son of the emperor and his cast-aside goblin wife, Maia has grown up far from the capital of the Elven Lands, subject to the tyranny and abuse of his guardian Setheris. But one day a messenger comes from the emperor’s court to say that the emperor and his sons have all been killed in an airship accident, and that Maia must now come to the Untheilenenise Court to be crowned as the next emperor. Unsure of himself and wildly underprepared for the job that faces him, Maia must learn to make his way in a hostile court.
Let me just start by saying OMG THE MACHINATIONS. There are so many machinations. On his very first day, for example, he receives a letter from his father’s widow, who signs herself “Ethuverazhid Zhasan”, demanding that he meet with her at a certain time. He politely declines, sets another time for them to meet, and returns the letter to her by way of her messenger.
The boy was lingering nervously on the landing. “Here,” said Maia. “Take this to the zhasanai with our compliments.”
Wide-eyed, the boy took the letter. He had caught the nuance — “zhasanai,” not “zhasan” — and Maia did not doubt the widow empress would be told. She could style herself a ruling empress all she liked, but she was not one. She was zhasanai, an emperor’s widow, and had best remember that she was now dependent upon her unknown stepson’s goodwill….Already I become a tyrant, Maia thought.
There’s a lot of this: the small but crucial distinctions of etiquette, the implications conveyed by the smallest irregularity of phrasing. Some of them Maia is able to understand on his own, but many more must be explained to him by his (all-too-limited) coterie of trusted advisers. Addison’s creativity is bottomless: She forces you to recognize the stakes in everything, and question the motives of everyone, whether they’re sending Maia a goblin-made coronation gift or shouting him down about the clockmakers’ plan for a new bridge.
Apropos of that, has anybody written a book that’s like, A month in the court of [insert historical monarch here]? The Goblin Emperor made me desperately curious for a book that would just methodically go through all the tasks that Edward IV had to do in a day. Who were his meetings with, and what kinds of decisions was he making? Inquiring minds want to know! And I think that’s very much to the credit of The Goblin Emperor and Katherine Addison’s deft hand with the minutiae of being a ruler.
BUT, to a non-zero extent:
“You only thought that was a flaw this whole time,” his mentor…told him. “It was actually your secret strength. You don’t have any flaws at all and you’re going to destroy the bad guy so much.”
He totally did.
If I’d let myself sink into an eye-rolling mindset, I could have done a lot of eye-rolling about how Maia’s always horrifying the court people by apologizing to The Lowly, and sympathizing way too much with the poor and oppressed and women who want to go to universities. That is a flaw in the book (I know the author knows the reader knows that it is nice, and not embarrassing, to apologize to The Lowly where indicated), but I was able to let it go. I embraced the mindset that, yes, Maia’s kind of a Mary-Sue-y hero; but he exists in a book that’s brilliant at court intrigues and machinations, which I would enjoy tremendously if I just accepted that I was reading for the machinations and not for the characters. So I did that.
(I still don’t think I would like Melusine. But I am very willing to read more of the Katherine Addison–brand books, if this is a representative of how machinations-heavy they are going to be.)