So this year’s Hugo award nominations are out, and apparently they’re a wee bit controversial. (Long story short: there was a concerted effort to nominate works on a particular list. The list was compiled by folks who think last year’s Hugos
nominated too many women and people of color ignored “real” sci-fi and fantasy in favor of weird literary stuff that no one really likes.)
I’m bummed that the Hugos are so immersed in drama this year, largely because it makes me sad when certain groups interpret the celebration of diverse, challenging, and imaginative works of SFF as a direct attack on them personally. But I’m also sad because the Best Novel nominations happen to include one of the best books I’ve read in the past several years: Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor.
Maia is the fourth son of the Emperor of the Elflands, arguably the most powerful man in his world. However, Maia has never been a pampered royal child. Maia’s mother Chenelo was a goblin princess whom the Emperor was forced to marry for political reasons, and Maia and Chenelo were exiled from the Utheileneise Court long ago. After Chenelo’s death Maia’s care was signed over to a disgraced courtier named Setheris, who despised his half-goblin charge and made sure Maia knew it.
Then one night news comes from the Emperor’s court. Maia’s father and three elder brothers have died in an airship crash, and Maia is now the Emperor.
The novel that follows this revelation is a gorgeous, labyrinthine journey through court intrigue, mixed with an incredibly compelling coming-of-age story. Maia’s education at Setheris’s hands has been pitifully lacking, and suddenly the shy teenager is thrown into the middle of a tangled political web. Some at the court wish him harm; others wish to manipulate him to serve their own needs. Meanwhile Imperial rules dictate that Maia cannot have even a moment of privacy and every interaction with other people is guided by formal Court protocol.
Suffice it to say that Maia has a lot to navigate–and there are a lot of people he can’t trust. But one of the things that struck me about The Goblin Emperor is that very few people in the book are evil, or even cruel. Setheris’s disappointment in his fall from grace made him a vicious guardian, but most of the courtiers Maia must do battle with suffer from much more banal flaws–selfishness and foolishness and greed.
And Maia himself is a breath of fresh air. Until I read this book I hadn’t realized how burned out I was on damaged anti-heroes, people who have suffered and see that as justification for inflicting all kinds of suffering on other people. Maia’s suffering makes him want to be kind. He’s been treated cruelly by many of the most important people in his life, but instead of looking to those experiences to guide him, Maia looks instead to the memory of his beloved mother and seeks out ways to help others. That kindness and desire to use his new power for good make Maia a wonderfully sympathetic protagonist.
The worldbuilding in The Goblin Emperor is absolutely first-rate. Maia’s world contains hints of Lord of the Rings, the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and even steampunk (airships!), and weaves them all together in an original and fascinating new universe. I can’t imagine the amount of time Addison must have spent developing the distinctive language of the Utheileneise Court but it’s almost Tolkeinesque (a word I don’t throw around lightly).
So if you’re a Hugo voter wondering whether to bother with this year’s competition, I implore you: at least vote in the Best Novel category and consider casting your vote for this gem. If you’re not a Hugo voter, just go read this book. I couldn’t put it down until I finished it and I bet you won’t be able to either.
Rating: Buy it