The Goblin Emperor • 2014 • Gaslight Fantasy novel by Katherine Addison


“Sudden Emperor” would be an alternative title for this gaslight fantasy, reminding of all those “Sudden XYZ” movies: Suddenly a change of role is imposed upon an unexpecting youngster. In this case the Elvish emperor with his direct heirs died in an airship “accident” and as next relative, deported goblin Maia has to climb the throne in the delicate age of 18 years without knowledge of court politics and schemes at all.

In my title, I scratched out the word “Goblin” because it doesn’t matter much. Ignoring the different ear directions pointing out the mood, everything could happen in some European Victorian gaslamp age court. Those tiny bits of difference in culture are certainly not enough to legitimate a deviation from standard human settings. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not objecting against the author’s choice using a Unseelie Court; it is only that I don’t get adrenaline rushs from exoticness out of this novel.

The novel is placed on the border to steam age with some innovations like airships already established but many more to be expected. Meaning, steam doesn’t percolate every facet of technology and in general isn’t accepted completely. The author shows this with the steamed draw bridge as a central topic where the government wonders about the feasibility. Those two elements (airship and bridge) are already two central topics – one initiating the “sudden emperor”, the other initiating an important step of the emperor’s coming-of-age. That is certainly enough “steamness” for me, only lacking the “punk”.

Speaking of adrenaline: Don’t expect action, at all. This novel fights more at the slow reading food level of Little, Big or The Night Circus, scratching out any hint of tension that could bother the reader. No action, no thriller, no detective story: The mystery of the assassinated predecessor isn’t going to bowl anyone over with its intricacies; same with some very dumb assassination attempts on Maia.

Instead, Addison excels at characterization and world-building. The coming-of-age of Maia, his relationships with the courtiers like his secretary or his bodyguards, his growing self-consciousness with court decisions is superb.
World-building deserves a seperate discussion, because I noted that some reviewers didn’t like it, mainly because the novel doesn’t talk much about things happening outside the court, especially not of different countries or cultures. At first, I was also a bit frustrated, because I expected some exploration of the world, lots of foreign ambassadors, maybe wars. Instead, I found a chamber play, restricted mainly to a couple of rooms within the palace.

Within this context, Addison broadly describes the setting in a very rich and thoughtful way.
This is an interesting deviation from usual Fantasy, where world-building is usually defined by describing cultures, cosmology, history, ecology, and geography. Good samples would be Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Le Guin’s Earthsea, or gaming settings like Dungeons and Dragons, or MMORPGs like World of Warcraft.

Even though these samples describe a far wider topic than only one palace, they are restricted as well, namely to one continent or one single planet. They usually don’t talk about the whole universe, other planets or longer timelines – Middle-Earth with its cosmology and detailed history of thousands of years being one notable exception in the latter regard. Going outside the scope of one planet seems to be the topic of Space Operas – starting with the solar system, e.g. in KSR’s 2312, and ending in a huge range of history and description of planets like in Herbert’s Dune series.

This is one central point of understanding world-building: From small planet to the whole universe, world-building is defined by the used context.

Addison doesn’t fail in that regard, the author only deviates from usual Fantasy tropes and reduces context nearly to the scope of a chamber play (only disregarding the number of participants and decorum). He doesn’t minimize scope, though: Scope could be brought down to an even more extreme form known as the Aristotelian unities, i.e. the unities of time, action, and place; this means that a drama should happen within one specific hour, follow only one defined plot, and happen in one closed room. One sample would be Shakespeare’s [book:The Tempest|12985], set on one island, happening in a couple of hours. Without further analysis, I think Neil Gaiman’s final issue of The Sandman follows also the Aristotelian unities, but I don’t know of any other SF or Fantasy work doing so. So, in the continuum of context for world-building, Addison tends towards a very reduced setting.

I’m not disappointed by scarse world-building, as Addison fills up the given context completely and to its fullest. Each context can be filled by good world-building, and Goblin Emperor should be placed nearer to the “one place” end than to the “exploring the whole world” part.

Contrariwise, I’m somewhat exhausted by the baroque or even rococoan abundance of details provided for the setting. Nearly every breath is considered and analyzed – what everyone wears, where everyone stands, the decorum of each and every room, every detail of traditions like funeral and coronations.
Addison emphasizes details with his elaborate, archaic court language, inventing parts of a linguistic background using systematically pre-, postfixes and inflections to denote title adressing or places. I find it a bit strange that Maia addresses himself in his thoughts with a majestatis pluralis and with “thy, thou, thee”, but after some 100 pages of exposure I got used to archaic terms, using “an” instead of “if” for example.

I struggled very hard with the first 100 pages, expecting a different narration. When I gave in, I found a poignant novel, an antithesis to our contemporary grim-dark Fantasy times. I liked it very much, and I’m very glad that this isn’t the start of a series but will remain a standalone novel.

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