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The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

The goblin emperorKatherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor (2014) is... a tricky book to wrap into a review. So you'll need to excuse my meandering path towards a conclusive (or not) opinion.

Maia is the exiled son of the Elven Emperor. He's grown up in exile - a dismal estate in the far side of nowhere, with only his abusive cousin for company. Forbidden the luxuries of court or the love of his father, Maia enters adulthood a self-composed, introverted young man, defined more by his losses (especially that of his mother) than his privileged position.

And that position changes - dramatically. An airship accident kills the Emperor and his immediate heirs. All of a sudden, Maia isn't just recalled to court - he is the court. Despite his lack of training and his uncertain background and his half-Goblin heritage, Maia's now the center of the civilised world. 

Maia quickly discovers that just becoming Emperor doesn't mean the end to his troubles. The Empire isn't an entirely happy place, the various nobles are grumpy, his Chancellor is playing politics, his grandfather - the king of the Goblins - is suddenly paying attention and, oh - his dad was assassinated. Maia's very existence, much less his political presence, is extremely inconvenient to everyone. Will he make a decent monarch? Or will he even make it to his next birthday? It is up to this suspiciously nifty young man to change the course of the world.

The politics are wily, complicated (but not overly so) and a lot of fun. There are scheming nobles and conflicting plots and factions and etiquette and arranged marriages and all sorts of entertaining problems to keep Maia occupied. He's a - very - Liberal sort, so, generally speaking, he gets through things by contemplating all the possibilities and then choosing The Right Thing, generally upsetting his advisors in the process.

As far as a greater conflict: one doesn't really exist. The Goblin Emperor isn't episodic as much as subtle. Imagine the meta-arc of a season of television - the overall 'plot' is about the murder of Maia's father and the dubious circumstances of his ascension, but that's something that comes and goes in the background. Even when that is resolved, it isn't final - more a matter of getting something behind the reader, so the next 'season' can begin. The real conflict, such as it is, involves Maia's confidence - his transformation from an unwilling monarch, to a reluctant one, to, finally, an accepting one.

Despite this light touch when it comes to plot, The Goblin Emperor does feel like it has a sense of forward progress. This is a hopeful, optimistic book, one that, ultimately involves someone doing the Right Thing Even Though It Is Hard and, eventually, Everyone Getting Their Just Desserts. [Capitals Because This Book Is Very Serious About This.] It is an empowering, feel-good book that leaves the reader feeling emotionally rewarded: actual good has actually triumphed.

The Goblin Emperor has been heralded as a "defiantly anti-grimdark" fantasy, the "antithesis" of the movement. But I tend to disagree - that's an oversimplification of both this book and the movement it is being pitted against. Of course, for that, we'll need a working description of grimdark, so... let's make one, shall we? Before the howling begins, this isn't meant to be the definition this much-debated genre, only a framework for this particular review. 

For this purpose, I think grimdark fantasy has three key components: tone, realism and agency.

Tone is, of course, the bit that makes "grimdark" so noticeable - indeed, the very title is stylistic, taken as it is from the opening lines of Warhammer 40K, the most brutal of game settings. But grimness and darkness are a matter of relativity - and, frankly - of talent. A brutally ultra-violent setting where the protagonist is raped six times before sunrise isn't, by necessity, any grimmer. Contrast, for example, the opening pages of Luke Scull's The Grim Company with those of Mark Lawrence's The Prince of Thorns. In the former, we have an entire city wiped out by dark magics. In the latter, we have a few carefully-crafted words about the rape of two teenage girls. By the numbers, the genocide of tens of thousands should be grimmer and darker. But it is the deft casualness of The Prince of Thorns that makes that book the far more haunting. (Despite the author's own protests, grimness isn't a matter of word count, but of reader impact.) Splatterpunk is numbing. "Good" grimness and darkness is a matter of insight and impact. There's a difference between actual darkness and the exacerbated symptoms thereof.

Maia has spent his childhood abandoned, and, as an empathetic protagonist, we feel his pain - it is easy to understand and identify with his suffering. He's been abused - 'mildly' by the standards of a Glotka or Tyrion - but it is no less damaging to him, and, therefore, to the reader. Similarly, the world of The Goblin Emperor is deftly painful: it is quasi-industrial civilisation with all the pains and labour and suffering that goes along with it... and a quasi-feudal one with all the pent-up rage and forced inactivity that goes with that. It isn't a post-apocalyptic future, but it is still miserable, and that misery is conveyed. Does it have explicit rape and torture scenes, followed by a mass genocide or two? No. But The Goblin Emperor is dark nonetheless.

But to take "grimdark" on tone alone is a mistake - one that, in fairness, many of contemporary grimdark authors are also making. What the best "grimdark" books have going for them is a sense of "realism" - as contrasted with the high fantasy, high magic, high concept books that preceded them. Clothes get dirty. Food tastes bad (and is is prepared by angry peasants). Monarchs are useless. Justice is uneven. And, most importantly, the heroes and heroines are flawed human beings in understandable ways. They're not wrestling with were-bear curses (Eddings) or love triangles with disguised princesses (everyone); they're dealing with creaky bones and empty purses and misunderstandings and a lack of clean clothes and occasionally being wrong about stuff. High fantasy characters aren't permitted to make mistakes - they're being railroaded by destiny. Grimdark protagonists are just as lost as we are.

Again, this is present in The Goblin Emperor. Despite the ridiculous names and frustratingly archaic language, there's no question we're dealing with "real" people - ones that have motives that go above and beyond "THE EVIL ONE COMMANDS ME". There are shades of good and evil - in fact, there's arguably neither of the above: just a lot of people that all think that they are in the right. Clothes are uncomfortable, sleep deprivation sucks, food can taste weird and sometimes people are cranky for no reason. That's real. It makes the highs and lows of the book better as well: Maia going days without rest aches the reader, and something as simple as a birthday present feels a greater reward than all the Vorpal Swords the Forgotten Realms has to offer.

However, The Goblin Emperor is also deliberately un-realistic, which is, in many ways, the book's biggest disappointment. There's a complex language hierarchy which involves folks speaking in a forced, quasi-archaic manner. Everyone has a seven-syllable name and there are even - argh - random apostrophes. The made-up words are so complicated that it takes a separate appendix to instruct the reader how to say them: a clear victory of world-building over common sense. There's a vast amount of info-dumping about magic and history and casual references to drinks-that-aren't-quite-like-our-drink-because-it-has-a-made-up-name and food-that-isn't-quite-like-our-food-because-it-has-a-made-up-name and animals-that-oh-you-get-it. These aren't just my personal bugbears... well, ok, they are... but also, every single one of these 15 letter names stands as a barrier between the reader and immersion. Every time we stumble over a new word (especially when when an old one would do), we're placed at a distance. The focus on building an alien world makes the story less real and less relevant. So is The Goblin Emperor realistic? Almost... but not quite.

And that leads us to the last key point - agency. Ultimately, where grimdark differed from its literary predecessors is that it featured characters carving out their own destinies: for better or for worse. High fantasy is the high church of predestination; grimdark is fantasy Protestantism - characters choose between good and evil.

High fantasy - from Tolkien to Brooks to Hobb to Jordan to Rowling to Eddings to Sanderson - features shades of a single plot: everything is predestined, the tension is around how that will be achieved. The great writers make that fascinating with compelling characters or absorbing worlds. But with grimdark, the future is mucky and undefined - evil could very well win.Perhaps that's the most realistic part of the genre. Or perhaps that's the grimmest - there's no longer a cosmic safety net for either the characters or the readers. Anything can happen. Remember the outcry that followed the ending of Abercrombie's The First Law? It was, in a sense, perfect - everyone got exactly what they deserved. Similarly, what George R.R. Martin brought with A Game of Thrones was that sense of surprise. Characters weren't being rewarded as the tradition demanded, instead their decisions - whether Good or Bad - brought them the appropriate, in-world consequences. This is the randomness of real life, coupled with a sort of karmic brilliance: there's a casual link between choices and conclusions.

And this is where my feelings about The Goblin Emperor are the most conflicted. Because, ultimately, Maia is an example of the high fantasy school where one's destiny is paramount. In multiple senses. Maia is born special and different due to his unique racial heritage. Maia is born to the Imperial family and, whether or not he's ostracised, he's still special and different because of that 'bloodline' as well. He may be a ragamuffin orphan, but he's directly descended from two imperial lines. And, of course, the plot of the book is that he is actually properly Chosen - the hand of fate plucks him from obscurity and makes him the most important person in the world. 

Yet, Maia's story is also, arguably, a struggle for agency. He's been empowered to do whatever-the-hell-he-wants, but he doesn't actually realise that, in both the literal and figurative sense of the word. He fails to acknowledge his own power over and over again, constantly surprised when he gets his way. He's got all the authority in the world. But from his perspective, he's utterly insignificant. 

So where's The Goblin Emperor wind up? Certainly dark (+1 grimpoint), partially realistic (+.5 grimpoints) and, depending where you stand, either full of agency or completely devoid of it (+0-and-or-1 Schrödinger's grimpoints). On a scale of 0-3, The Goblin Emperor could be, well, almost anywhere. It probably isn't grimdark - that's fair to say. But, equally, it isn't not not grimdark either. Ultimately, we're proving that a) genre definitions are stupid and b) especially so when they come to complex books. But positioning this book as the anti-grimdark is just as inaccurate as saying it is the latest in that subgenre.

And as to evaluating the book itself? This complexity does make for an impressively rewarding fantasy - subtle, characterful and deeply emotive. And yet, there's also much about The Goblin Emperor that is frustratingly self-defeating: the frustrating language, the clunky style, the shameless info-dumping, the heavy-handed morality, the too-perfect protagonist. It is amazing the book succeeds so well, as it comes packaged in such a thick shell of alienating cliches. 

Just as I can't place the book definitively within a subgenre, nor can I pin down how I feel about it. I recommend it - wholeheartedly - but I'm equally sure that I didn't actually like it myself. The objectively interesting vs the subjective distaste. Make of that - and this book - what you will. 

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