A very decent proposal
Starting off a new year with a new author, Katherine Addison, the Beamers found ourselves wading through a veritable sea of decency with her Locus Readers Poll winner, The Goblin Emperor. Written about an exiled 18-year-old who becomes emperor and must figure out the ways of the elvish court, the book maintains its focus on a main character who develops over time but never loses his fundamental good nature.
Born to Exile
Maia, a young noble of mixed ancestry (goblin on his mother’s side), is thrust into the middle of a court reeling from the “accidental” deaths of his father, the Emperor, and his 3 older half-brothers. Not prepared nor trained, Maia must learn by doing and in the process both govern the realm of the elves and keep control over his own life, which is suddenly complicated by murder investigations, attempted coups, and plans for an arranged marriage to an older, sophisticated court lady. Addison tosses a lot of backstory and plot at the reader, much in the way that Maia is tossed into the waters of intrigue to learn how to swim or sink in the attempt. Fortunately, much of the story takes an uncynical perspective, allowing Maia’s better instincts to overcome the more urbane and political maneuvering that takes place all around him.
Nice Guys Finish
For most Beamers, it was a relief to meet such a decent young protagonist, whose company Fran found congenial after a mite too many dystopias in our recent past. Maia’s growth as a character also charts nicely with the pacing of the book, each becoming more active as the story unfolds. That connection, however, did mean that the book is slow to read in its early parts, with the reader almost as often lost in the protocol and gossip of the court as poor Maia. Several Beamers were only partway through and were frankly wondering if continuing was the best choice. Those of us who finished were encouraging, particularly if they were fond of Maia or impressed by his plucky attitude. Chris felt that the book did depend on Maia, who is the viewpoint character, so liking or disliking him was the key to finishing or not.
And he was given much over which to deliberate and decide. Kathy was impressed by the sheer number of issues that Addison was able to work organically into the story, touching seriously upon child abuse, the death penalty, arranged marriage, and the education (or not) of women, as Liz pointed out. Plus, the book seemed free of agendas, in that it was not apparent that Addison was pushing particular viewpoints or introducing plot points solely to bring out discussions. Instead, the issues were embedded into the characters (almost literally in Maia’s case, bearing his scarred forearm).
Those of Us About to Die
One contrary point that I brought up was the book’s use of ritual suicide. Where the new Emperor shied away from execution to carry out his justice (exile preferred), he did attend a ritual suicide to provide some forgiveness to a disgraced bodyguard, and that scene was played out in full. We argued over the level of barbarity in the Empire as demonstrated not only by the suicide but also by the tradition of the Imperial bodyguards “accompanying” a deceased Emperor to the afterlife (voluntarily? involuntarily? prematurely?), a tradition that bothered me more than the ritual suicide. Carol found the cross-symmetric placing of the four bodyguards (soldiers, mages) in the emperor’s tomb a pleasing arrangement, but she did think that four was a bit skimpy, leaving them no time for illness or days off. Overall, Addison’s elvish realm is a civilized place, with maybe a few reminders of its less savory past.
Up Against the (Library) Wall!
One issue that did not get as much coverage as I would have liked was the revolutionary manifesto, whose chief agent was possibly the most ingenious and most clear-eyed character in the book. Despite being a terrorist, the chief revolutionary was considerate and regretful for the actual assassination of Maia’s father and half-brothers but not for the necessity of carrying out the deed. In fact, a lot of social discontent, as in a novel by Dickens about the horrors of factory work, was half-hidden by the courtly functions and dazzle. Perhaps a sequel will give us a bit more information about the hard labors and short lives of the workers to make us and Maia appreciate their desperation and firm conviction to upset the Imperial apple cart.
Or a sequel could also take us to visit his maternal relatives, the goblins. We were treated to a brief but enjoyable holiday stay by the goblin King, his grandfather, but we were left with a lot of questions at to how and why elves and goblins differ. Donna wished for some solid goblin customs or rituals that would allow us to really distinguish the different … races? … species? … peoples? I would have been happy to get a bit of explanation over the various “ear” postures of both tribes, which Kathy likened to canine postures (up for alert/angry, down for relaxed/submissive).
I Say “My-ah”, You Say “May-uh”
And most of us could have used the pronunciation and name guides up at the front of the book. (Nick had not even found the guides and glossary, yet.) Kathy’s major criticism was over having to deal with multiple series of semi-pronounceable strings of syllables, compounded by each character going under 3 different forms of address (personal name, court name, title), making the book as name-happy as a Russian novel. With a little work, it is possible to “decode” the names as well as the uncover the stems inside the elvish nouns, but several Beamers found it to be more work than they wished to perform.
A Coochy-coochy Coup?
If the book lacked anything, it may have been much dramatic tension. Alan struggled through 100 pages or so but did not find any significant reason to want to follow Maia and his internal moping about being emperor. The coup and the attempted assassination were both over in short order, including the uncovering of the conspirators and their punishment. Even Maia’s loneliness, which does seem rooted in a realistic portrayal of the alienation of power, is alleviated by book’s end, with his realization of how “friend” can be interpreted in ways that permit him to maintain some needed distance without being cut off completely. Even the very sharp bureaucratic ploys used by the Imperial council are neatly sidestepped by Maia’s innate propensity to do the Right Thing over the Proper Way.
So, readers looking for a group hug of a fantasy, one which features few fantastic elements and is more like the romance of The Prisoner of Zenda instead of the gritty realism of A Game of Thrones, can warm up to The Goblin Emperor for a cozy read in the winter months. Most Beamers were happy to begin our year with a bit of a snuggle.