It’s not what you think it’s going to be.
Those are the words you’ll hear frequently in connection with the Nebula/Hugo-nominated The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison’s novel of court intrigue against the steampunk backdrop of a fantasy kingdom of goblins and elves. (Which immediately puts me in mind of Woody Allen’s ‘The Ransom Note‘ routine, in which he is ushered into the back of a van by kidnappers who promise to take him away to a land where ‘everybody is fairies and elves.’)
Why the fantasy backdrop? It’s a novel of emperors and princes and court intrigue, but it’s not historical, and the use of fantastic beings allows Addison to write about race and gender, prejudice and oppression, whilst maintaining some critical distance.
If I were to criticise The Goblin Emperor, I’d have to admit to some confusion about names. Too many characters who appear briefly, or once or twice, are referred to by complicated names following the arcane rules set out in the appendix, and I struggled to keep track of them all. There’s a list in the back of the novel, but it’s not all that useful, given the variations in names given for the same people, and given that the terse descriptions of who they are don’t really tell you much.
But that naming problem is all part of the world building, and of course allows you to empathise with the titular character, a half-goblin child of a political marriage, who has been living in exile with a bullying relative, and who is plucked from obscurity when his father and all of his older brothers die in an airship disaster. His confusion and bewilderment at court manners and politics are mirrored by your own difficulty in keeping track of all the strange names.
Maia is a sympathetic hero, and as he comes to terms with his new exalted position, he soon realises that the airship disaster was no accident, and doesn’t truly know who he can trust. It’s a fascinating story, offering the political manoeuvrings of Game of Thrones without quite so much visceral violence, and it genuinely becomes quite moving at times.
Yes, I too, was offput by the title and the very notion of reading something about goblins and elves – but it’s not what you think it’s going to be. Recommended.