The Goblin Emperor
By Katherine Addison
The protagonist of The Goblin Emperor is Maia, fourth son of the emperor of Elfland. He and his goblin mother were cast-off by his elfin father. But the sudden death of the emperor (and his heirs) in a nasty airship accident has thrust Maia back into a court that was not expecting a half-goblin to rule over it. Maia, who has lived in uneducated exile, now has to learn what he should have been learning all along — court etiquette, clan alliances, court laws and politics, dance moves, imperial behavior.
Maia is one of the best characters I’ve encountered in a while. He’s kind-hearted, tolerant, self-loathing (because of his dark skin), apologetic about his existence, and full of insecurity. He’s confused about everything and his intellectual growth is the same as the reader’s because we are as lost in this world as Maia is. More so. Luckily for Maia— perhaps too luckily— he is surrounded by a few relatives, courtiers, and councilors who are willing to help him in a court which largely belittles and despises him. And this is one of the serious miscalculations of the novel.
The Goblin Emperor contains whole sections that cause one’s eyes to glaze over. There are other sections where a reader simply rolls her eyes. First, the eye-rolling. There are a whole mess of Wish-fulfillment characters in this book. All are placed in the right places to make our main character feel better about himself. I have nothing against wish fulfillment characters but Horatio is a good wishfulfillment character to Hamlet, Prince Idra is not a good character for Maia. Prince Idra pretty much takes the words out of Maia’s mouth whenever they are talking. While the emperor has many enemies out to get him, he also has a whole bastion of people whose existence are made wonderfully better because he has arrived in their lives. Worse yet, the characters who dislike the emperor are “bad,” worthy of (the reader’s) mockery, unenlightened, greedy, or weak. Yep. whoever loves the emperor is incredibly good. And because Maia likes and approves of certain oppressed people we know he is good because he is politically-correct for the reader. There are feminist-agenda storylines that don’t actually matter to the plot. They seem thrown in to make the emperor look “good” and progressive or because the author seemingly had to get all her agenda stuff off her chest. I mean “all.” This easy delineation of good characters versus bad characters is so judgmental, easy, and childish that
one can only endure it and keep reminding one’s self that this is a flaw of many newbie writers with passionate convictions who don’t believe they’ll have another chance to get all their stories out in other published books. Trust me, I know whereof I speak. When I first began writing, I was tempted to do this kind of thing but luckily my friends slapped some sense into me.
The oldfashioned feminism creates pages of sorrowful wimpy princesses who “want to study the stars” but are forced to marry, noble good homosexual former priest who are being blackmailed, and lesbian princesses who run away from home to become sea captains.
As for eyes glazing over: The worldbuilding is a mess and is not integrated into the story as well as it should be. I’ve always thought that a good world-builder should also be a good teacher, specifically a good language teacher. The reader should be dropped into a novel like an immigrant dropped into a large city. Utterly confused but with enough clues to fend for ourselves. This book is overly complicated and doesn’t have that teacher sensibility. And no, the glossary in the back is not that helpful.
For one, the language and naming system get in the way. I’m all for inventing new languages and names but information should not be continually thrown at the reader at breakneck speed on every page of the book. And, if they are being thrown at us, they should really be part of the plot. It often feels that the author throws information at the reader in memo form and almost as an aside. Casual backstories are jockeyed around as self-contained or extended anecdotes. And again, they often have nothing to do with the main plot, which makes the main plot somewhat thin.
Even with all this glut of information, the world-building is insufficient. It’s as if the author’s priorities were in the wrong place. So much is left unclear. The only difference I can see between elves and goblins is that elves are white and goblins are black. I don’t know the difference between elves and men or if men really matter in this world. The magic and fantasy are inconsistent. A conversation with the dead here. An airship there. But for the most part the racial issues between elves and goblins weren’t really explored.
The book is a strange compelling combination of the confusing and the simplistic. I say compelling because although I found this book incredibly confusing more on this later I couldn’t put it down.
While I’m not a feminist, I do agree with some of their tenets. I admire some authors’ goodwill toward black folks, equality, etc., but sometimes I cringe when I see token Black women or Magical Negroes. While it is good to have allies, sometimes those allied to our cause can be frustrating. Bad Feminist fiction is often reductionist and The Goblin Emperor often seem to exist primarily as a vehicle to carry an agenda. Gay rights is a large part of the feminist movement but the presence of Magical/Suffering Homosexual might make some gay folks cringe. The blackmailed suffering homosexual snippet was particularly egregious because the author’s desire to show how much gay folks have suffered at the hands of conservative people not only doesn’t fit into the story but she leaves the reader wondering if the author thinks homosexuality is unnatural, given the elffolk and goblins reaction to it. Why not just create an elfworld where homosexuality is normal? Unless this is a specific branch of Judeo-Christian elves out there, this is a case of the agenda missing its mark. I’m thinking of Kari Sperring’s fine fantasy novel, Living With Ghosts which had homosexual characters and of Sylvia Kelso’s Amberlight, which is a feminist fantasy novel which does not fall into typical feminist tropes.