Reading the Hugos: Goblin Emperor

First up in my reading of the Hugo shortlist is Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. It’s been on my to-read list for ages, and as the only straight-up fantasy on the best novel shortlist, I thought I’d start with something I’m most likely to enjoy. Also, my library had it available.

And enjoy it I did. It’s a very charming, intimate and political story, full of intricate details of society, politics and etiquette and bound very closely around the journey undertaken by the main character. That character – Maia – was the neglected, exiled and disregarded fourth son of a strict monarch, until an airship disaster leaves him the only surviving son and therefore Emperor. From here, the book covers the first fraught months of his reign, as Maia attempts to take on a role he has never been prepared for amidst the machinations of the court.

A highlight, for me, was the social worldbuilding, and the delightful use of language it prompted. The careful use of levels of formality in interaction – and the dance of pronouns – was particularly delicious, and given an extra layer of poignancy through Maia’s previous extreme isolation; as he negotiates society, so he introduces it to us. However, politically, I was a little underwhelmed by proceedings. Things work a little too smoothly for Maia, and a combination of his good intentions shining through, and the fortuitously correct selection of trustworthy assistants, means things never get as twisty, backstabby or ambiguous as I really like in my political fantasy.

But all of that is trumped by Maia’s emotional journey and how strongly connected to him we become through the course of the novel. He is both sincerely earnest, and gently self-mocking, and the combination is so terribly endearing that despite my political druthers, I found myself consistently hoping that everything would turn out well for him, and being delighted when it did. And so the almost fairytale realisation of it all – that the good end well because their goodness prompts and draws goodness in others – somehow works to make the book overall very satisfying.

I gave this four stars on GoodReads (because I enjoyed it a great deal, but didn’t love it outrageously) and I think it’s an extremely well crafted novel with interesting, true things to say about being human.

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