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Hugos Review 2015: The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

When I decided to register as a supporting Hugos member this year, I resolved that I would read all the nominated novels and try to make my best unbiased judgment – but from the start, I suspected that The Goblin Emperor would get my vote. So as I’ve reread it these past few days, I’ve been musing on the qualities that make me deem a book worthy of the Hugo. There’s been a lot of discussion of this in the fan community in the last few months. People have debated the relative merits of a rip-roaring good tale versus well-crafted prose; the value of using a story as a platform to increase the representation of diverse groups in fiction – or to explore real-world social problems; and whether the best stories are those rooted in the characters, worldbuilding, big ideas or plot. And the more I read across the genre, the more I’m coming to peace with the fact that there are no right answers to these questions. SF/F is a big tent with space in it for everybody; the important thing is that we’re here because there are stories in the genre that we love. And if we’re adding our own stories, I suspect that regardless of our other motivations for writing, on some level, we want people out there to love them, too.

So in approaching my Hugos ballet this year, I used a strategy that I hope will serve me well as I approach nominations in the future: read as widely as I can, and then pick out the stories I love best for recognition. This time around, for the 2014 Best Novel category, that’s The Goblin Emperor.

I’ve talked about this book here before, the tale of the biracial prince whose birth was the result of his elven emperor father’s ill-advised and brief political marriage to a goblin princess. Our hero has spent most of his life in exile with only an embittered cousin for company, and the story starts when he’s awakened with the news that there’s been an airship accident, his father and three elder brothers are dead, and he’s now the emperor of the elflands. It’s a book that seems, at a glance, to have all the tackiest qualities that non-fantasy-readers associate with our genre. The setting is quasi-medieval, a nation on the cusp of its industrial revolution. The population’s comprised of elves (with white hair and skin and gray eyes), goblins (with black hair and skin and red eyes), and those of mixed heritage (with skin that comes in varying shades of gray). The characters have long, polysyllabic names that are easy to confuse on a first reading (examples: Beshelar and Berenar; Csevet and Csethiro; Telimezh and Tethimel).

Maybe most of all, the language is vexingly complex, with two forms of address for first and second person (the author uses ‘we’/’I’ and ‘you’/‘thou’ to distinguish them) and different titles for men, married women, and unmarried women, with three different prefixes depending on the bearer’s social standing (a man of average, noble or high noble stature, for instance, would be correctly titled as Mer, Osmer, or Dach’osmer, respectively). In the course of a few pages, the same character might be referred to by personal name, family name (which is actually a stem to which different suffixes are attached depending on the individual’s gender and marital status), and title-plus-family name without blinking an eye. Oh, and did I mention the emperors take imperial names that are even longer?

In spite of all this, when I picked the book up last year, I couldn’t put it down. And I think that’s almost entirely to do with Addison’s crafting of her main character, Maia Drazhar (AKA His Imperial Serenity, Edrehasivar VII. I did warn you about the names). Although Maia’s story is presented to us in third person, it may as well be a first-person account. We see everything through his eyes, which lets Addison craft a classic “stranger comes to town” introduction to her world, and then gloriously subvert the trope by reminding us that this particular stranger doesn’t have the luxury of time to learn his way around. He has a government to run.

I’ve read a number of negative reviews of this book, and those that don’t identify the wordplay as the reason they bounced off the story tend to focus on its slow pace. It’s true that there are whole paragraphs devoted to things like “the emperor is dressed by his stewards; this is what they dress him in; isn’t it odd that an emperor isn’t allowed to dress himself.” There are no swordfights, and very little magic. The “conflict,” such as it is, ostensibly focuses on Maia’s attempts to figure out what happened to his father’s airship, and then unravel various political conspiracies within the court while dodging the efforts of those who want to remove him from power – but as far as I’m concerned, the real story here is about Maia’s journey from becoming the emperor to beginning to be the emperor.

Yes, this book has dense language, and complicated names. But it also has beautiful conversations between Maia and his bodyguards about whether they can also be his friends, about whether an emperor can have friends. It has an eighteen-year-old kid realizing that he will never again in his life have a moment’s solitude. It has him attempting to do the right thing by attending the funeral for the airship crew who died with his father, only to realize that his presence turns that funeral into a spectacle that’s all about him. Maia spends the book trying to figure out how to be Edrehasivar VII while still holding on to some semblance of himself, and that’s the journey that intrigued me.

The other part of my realization that what makes a “good” book is subjective is that one person’s un-put-downable book will leave someone else cold. I know that there are many people who won’t be drawn into this one, and there’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve picked up a number of books on the basis of glowing recommendations and set them down unfinished. But for me, what makes a book grab hold and not let go is the opportunity to delve deeply into a character and a setting; to explore questions about identity and one’s place in the world; and to walk away feeling like I’ve stood in someone else’s shoes for a while. For all these reasons, The Goblin Emperor will get my vote for the Best Novel Hugo this year.