Review: The Goblin Emperor

Published in 2014, Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor was runner-up for the 2015 Best Novel Hugo Award and was shortlisted for the Nebula. It’s well-loved by pretty much everyone I know who’s read it and a good portion of the online genre community; it’s often been described to me as an example of hopepunk, which I am very on board with.

Maia is the little-regarded, half-goblin fourth son of the elvish emperor Varenechibel IV, the result of a loveless political marriage that saw the emperor banish him and his goblin mother to an out-of-the-way estate. With his mother dead, Maia’s grown up under the less than tender care of his alcoholic, abusive cousin Setheris, who plainly resents Maia for his own exile from the court. But then word comes that the emperor’s airship has crashed, killing him and his three eldest sons – making Maia the new emperor. Thrust into political power he never expected to have, he must learn how to navigate the appearance-obsessed imperial court quickly if he’s to have a chance at survival and self-determination.

It’s easy to see why the novel is so loved. Maia is, honestly, a sweetheart: he’s kind, gentle, determined not to repeat the injustices his father perpetrated and very self-aware when it comes to the seductions of power. In a world where it’s startling, almost unthinkable, for an emperor to admit fault or recognise the personhood of others, he apologises for uncharacteristic outbursts of temper, asks to meet and learn the names of his household staff and works to give the women of the court greater agency when it comes to marriage negotiations. Watching him push against the hierarchical norms of his society and learn how he can best deploy his power to benefit those he rules – overcoming his abusive upbringing to resist the manipulation of those who want political power for themselves – is immensely satisfying. It’s nice. The Goblin Emperor is a nice book.

For me, though, it’s haunted by a kind of ideological doublethink which is most obvious in Maia’s attitude to the servants. Elvish society generally relegates them to second-class status, whereas for goblins servants are part of the family – hence Maia’s desire to learn his servants’ names and support the families of the servants who died aboard his father’s airship. The servants involved – and their families – are pleased and honoured by this recognition, and the warm fuzzy feelings their gratitude generates in the reader obscure the fact that having a serving class at all is unjust and exploitative; Maia being nice to them doesn’t materially change their circumstances. This contradiction repeats itself throughout the novel: that Maia is committed to using his absolute power justly does not mean it is just that he has that power in the first place. The novel enacts this striving towards justice and liberalism without really interrogating the nature of kingship itself, and whether true justice and liberalism is possible in a state led by an unelected official. Maia is not making radical changes to the structure of government; he’s just being slightly nicer to more people. And yet this ultimately pretty conservative text is being read as an entry in the radical hopepunk movement. Perhaps this is all the radicalism that can be managed in high fantasy, a genre that’s predicated on the institution of kingship; I don’t actually think that’s true, but the fact that it is being read as a radical text is a pretty unfortunate statement on the state of the genre generally.

I do want to emphasise that in many ways The Goblin Emperor is a good novel. Its emphasis on process rather than imperial fiat – that is, on the hard work of getting things done, building relationships and having meetings and managing correspondence rather than, e.g., assassinating people and planning battles – is a welcome reminder of what good leadership really looks like. Foz Meadows’ review of the book in Strange Horizons looks at the systematic relationship between abuse and power in the novel, suggesting ways in which Addison does interrogate the nature of kingship. And, generally, it’s just a nice book to spend time with. But it doesn’t quite work.

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