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Book Report: The Goblin Emperor

So… Your Humble Blogger has not written about this year’s Hugo nonsense, largely because many people with actual knowledge have been writing quite well about it but also because my stance on the Hugos has been for some years that it is structurally problematic, and that my preferred response to that is to demote its prestige to no more than the other specfic awards. Writing more about the nonsense—some of it very interesting nonsense—seemed unnecessary both from the point of view of content and attention. Plus, let’s be clear, I haven’t written about much of anything for months and months.

I did, however, read enough about the whole business to become interested in reading The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison. It’s the only nominee for Best Novel not to come from a Puppy Slate (if you don’t know what that means, be grateful for your ignorance) so I am assuming it will win the Hugo. And viewed as a Hugo-winner, it’s… okay.

Now, YHB is a fiend for narrative, as y’all know, and this is a world-building book, with a plot that has very little incident. As a Source of Reader Irritation, a protagonist who has no idea what his goals are is a big deal for me. So in some ways, I was impressed just by how much I was absorbed by the book despite feeling itchy for something to happen every now and then. And there were other Sources of Reader Irritation as well: long names indistinguishable from each other, conspicuously opaque faux-translation, occasional clunky dialogue. And yet, I remained absorbed by the book, staying up later than I intended to read another passage. So that’s all right.

In the end, though, I was left more irritated than satisfied, and not so much by any of the things I found irritating while I was reading it. The lasting problem, for me, was that the main character wound up being a sort of Connecticut Liberal in the Elf King’s Court.

To explain what I mean by that—the titular character is the youngest son of the Emperor, the result of an ill-advised treaty marriage between the Emperor of the Elves and the daughter of the Emperor of the Goblins; as a half-elf, he is brought up away from the court, first by his mother and then by a drunken tutor. Not only does nobody expect him to become Emperor, nobody expects him to ever attend Court, or even be released from what is effectively house-arrest in a backwoods province. And then, when Maia is eighteen the Royal Family is killed in an airship crash; he ascends the throne as an unprepared outcast. And thus the book.

And he is an unprepared outcast and a racial minority to boot, so it makes sense that he will have an outsider’s view of things generally. But he gets in trouble (more or less) over his first year under the crown for expressing support not only for racial minorities, but religious minorities and homosexuals. He supports women’s rights, he urges tolerance for the nearby indigenous people and respect for their religious sites. He supports industrial progress against feudal lords, but he also supports workers against owners. He supports the arts! He is kind to children and menials! He pushes for greater transparency in government! He might as well have posted one of those tests that shows how much he agrees with Bernie Sanders.

Now, in many ways, that’s the point of the story: the new emperor, having the experience of being a minority and not having been indoctrinated with the ideas of the aristocracy, is naturally a liberal. My problem with that is that it’s just bullshit. I mean, it would be kind of cool if people were naturally liberal, and the only things keeping them from actively identifying as liberal are brainwashing or ignorance. I mean, it wouldn’t be actually cool, because what makes the world interesting and fun is that people are different, one to another, but from a liberal perspective, it would be easier to persuade people to support liberal causes if liberalism were some sort of natural state. It isn’t.

And making Maia such a modern liberal ruins the book, for me, because it takes Maia out of the world of the book entirely. He is implausible, a cipher, a stand-in for the reader’s modern world-view. It flattens the world. It also takes away from the racial aspect that I had expected to book to explore more deeply—Our Only President is bi-racial and is The Black President; the racial aspect of that in our world is fascinating. It is much less fascinating for the Goblin Emperor. Now, it’s true that the racial aspect is probably more fascinating further away from the Emperor himself, who is by the nature of the office insulated from direct insult under normal circumstances. From the moment of coronation, racism becomes in some sense treason, and kept secret accordingly. And that’s interesting in itself, except that because the author has restricted our view to Maia’s, we don’t see it very much.

(I should say, Ms. Addison’s choice to hew closely to Maia pays off in other ways; having additional point-of-view characters would make it an entirely different book with entirely different Sources of YHB’s Irritation, and knock out some of the stuff I really enjoyed. Everything’s a trade-off, and I wouldn’t call this particular choice a mistake, at all. It’s just that one particular drawback, not closely seeing how any subjects deal with race, resonates for me with the problem that the Emperor is by office insulated from racial politics, and the racial politics were part of the thing I was looking forward to in the book.)

Anyway. I am disappointed. Much to like about the book—I liked, for instance, the central political point about the building of a new, technologically sophisticated bridge across a span previously thought to be unbridgeable, particularly as the metaphor was (through most of the book) muted in favor of entertaining political squabbling and pretty models. And I liked Maia and his timid good-heartedness, his terror of being thought ignorant and stupid, his unwillingness to use his position for his own comfort, and his difficulty in defining his vague sense of what a good Emperor should be. Maybe in a year or so I will forget how cranky I wound up, and only remember the good stuff. But for now, still cranky.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Nah, i'm with you on this --- i enjoyed reading the book, but i was left with a sense of not very much there. Mostly, it's a book about Good People and Not Good People, and we're grownups here. Nominations were due when i was only halfway through reading it, and i nominated it due to being charmed by the first half. I wasn't sorry i had after i finished it, but i definitely felt like the first half overpromised.

You're slightly wrong about the ballot, though --- there are actually three non-puppies-sourced novels, this, Ancillary Sword, and The Three-Body Problem. I'd heard before i read it that Ancillary Sword read like the second book in a trilogy. And that's fair enough but i enjoyed the heck out of reading it, speaking of world-building as we were, and was sorry when it was over.

Ah, yes. I ought to have looked that up before writing. I did read Ancillary Sword, tho’ I didn’t blog it; I thought it was very much a curate’s egg, excellent in parts.


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