Addison, Katherine. The Goblin Emperor.

NY: Tor, 2014.

I’ve been an avid fan of all sorts of science fiction all my life but I’ve always been much pickier about fantasy. There’s a tendency to posit non-human semi-supernatural races of beings for their own sake, and to just wave a wand and say “Magic!” as a cop-out when you don’t want to have to explain something that would be counter to natural law. Tolkien has a lot to answer for in my book. I am a fan, though, of authors like Joe Abercrombie, whose fantasy worlds are more “real.” Addison (who is really Sarah Monette, and has published a number of horror and weird fantasy novels under that name) is closer to that style, and this politics-heavy yarn has a lot to recommend it.

Maia, age seventeen, is the youngest son of the elfin Emperor of Ethuveraz, and he’s been in exile at a remote hunting lodge since he was little. His mother — a goblin, and his father’s fourth wife — died when he was eight, unmourned by anyone but him, and he’s been kept in seclusion and under the thumb of an out-of-favor courtier ever since. But now word comes that his father, his three older half-brothers, and his nephew are all dead in the crash of an airship and Maia, very suddenly, is the new emperor. And he’s nervously aware that he doesn’t know anything. He’s intelligent and empathic, and his heart is in the right place, but he’s also ignorant and naive. He knows, or soon learns, that everyone at the court he’s never even visited will be out to manipulate him. He yearns to trust someone, but who? His father’s surviving former wives? The Lord Chancellor? His younger cousins, who would follow him in the succession if anything untoward should happen? Not to mention that many of his more aristocratic pale-haired elf subjects are thoroughly racist when it comes to the black-skinned goblins who live to the north of the empire. But the law is the law, and elves are very big on obeying it, so Maia becomes Edrehasivar VII and begins trying to rule as well as reign. Which isn’t helped by his innate shyness and the realization that he will have no privacy for the rest of his life. And then the investigating Witnesses have to tell him that the airship crash was actually the result of sabotage. His father and brothers were murdered.

The plot is complex but Addison does a pretty good job of explaining things as you go along and keeping it all straight. The characters are fully developed in multiple dimensions and the dialogue illuminates them. If you prefer politics and personal interrelationships and detailed world-building to galloping action, you’ll like this one. But there are also several fundamental problems.

First, why elves and goblins? The former aren’t in the least ethereal and the later aren’t at all orc-like. There are aristocrats, merchants, blue-collar working men, and professional military types among both races. They often work at the same jobs together and they can and often do intermarry. Actually, they could be Caucasian and Negro for all the difference it would make to the story, or to the world in which it’s set. Nearly all the time, the characters can be thought of as just people. In constructing a story like this, you can’t just say, “Oh, he’s an elf,” and let it go. (But then, for many readers, it apparently wouldn’t feel like fantasy.)

Second, the author has gone to very great lengths to create terminology and personal names that are long and convoluted and difficult to pronounce, and for no obvious reason — except, again, that Tolkien fans probably will expect it. But the actual effect is only to make it very difficult to keep track of characters, the offices they hold, and the various parts of the sprawling palace. (I’d hate to have to listen to the audiobook version of this thing, frankly.) Originality in world-building does not require obfuscation.

Third, why is this even an empire? In English, “emperor” implies a superior ruler over a collection of kings. But the ruler of the goblin nation next door — who is also Maia’s maternal grandfather — appears to be the political equal of the emperor. And the latter’s upper-level subjects are called princes and dukes and other subordinate titles. Not a “king” among them. Again, proper world-building should make sense and be internally consistent. Again, there has to be a reason for all these things.

Still and all, I enjoyed the story and I have to wonder whether Addison is considering a sequel. Having survived a couple of assassination attempts and a failed coup, Maia is now facing marriage, and I would like to know what happens next.

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