“The Goblin Emperor:” An Optimistic Look at Incremental Social Change with Intrigue, Swashbucking, and Airships

[These spoilers are bigger than airships.]

As a part of my reading of the 2014 Nebula Award nominees, I just finished The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. The award has already been given and went to Annilation, which I reviewed here earlier this year. Both books were gripping in strikingly different ways.  I don’t personally care much for horror so I got more pleasure out of reading The Goblin Emperor. At it’s core, The Goblin Emperor is an optimistic book.

Although I haven’t read them in years, I love the swashbuckling and courtly intrigue in the novels of Alexandre Dumas.  The story opens with Maia, the protagonist, receiving the news that his father, the emperor, as well as his brothers, were killed in an airship crash. He returns to court to become Emperor. There are many barriers to Maia becoming a successful Emperor: some internal and many external.

Addison does a great job of using the language of the book itself to give the reader a sense of how overwhelmed Maia feels at court. Name after name is introduced, and as a reader, I began to feel a bit bogged down. However, I feel that this was an intentional choice as it actually demonstrates how challenging it is to come to court ignorant of all the courtiers and various factions. Over time, as Maia (and the reader) become more familiar with the characters, it’s easier to understand.  Maia is ignorant, not unintelligent, which other characters in the book begin to realize. (There’s also stereotypes about goblins by the elves that lead to assumptions that Maia is unintelligent, among other things.)

The book explores inequality and shows how Maia was treated by elves due to his goblin heritage, including stereotyping and discrimination. I also like the fact that Maia, although he is a young man, treats women as equals with their own interests. He is a good ally to his sister for example, when he allows her to study the stars instead of forcing her to immediately marry for political reasons. His repeated and supportive actions of women allow other women to begin trusting him, including his fiancé, a swordswoman. It’s a lovely look at how being disadvantaged in one category should allow for empathy towards other disadvantaged groups. Certainly, this empathy doesn’t always develop, and individual’s in one oppressed group may oppress another.

The book also deals with the inherent problems of monarchy.  It’s quite easy to see in their society how the particular personality of the ruler combined with the ultimate power of the position could lead to negative outcomes for people in their society.

In a storytelling sense, the novel couldn’t end with the “success” of those who wanted to depose him because the reader is likely rooting for Maia, the underdog, even though he is the emperor.  However, one of the people who masterminded the attack on the monarchy points out that they actually did change things for the better for the people.  While some of those behind the attack wanted to end monarchy altogether, their actions placed Maia on the throne, who had already shown himself to be more liberal and caring in his policies than many of his predecessors. He is concerned with workers’ rights, for example. Change is incremental, as this books illustrates. Even if democracy exists as a theory, it takes time to change the structure of the society, as well as the culture and beliefs of the individuals in the culture. (I think that this is an important point to remember when countries invade other countries to “free” them. If the people of the invaded country aren’t yet ready culturally or structurally for the change, it becomes challenging to make changes.)

All in all, this was a delightful read about power, in-groups and out-groups, stigma, stereotypes, social change, and more. I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who likes tales of diplomacy, swashbuckling, and a more optimistic look at the future of society’s social change. It’s refreshing to see a novel about a character who isn’t perfect but tries to be morally good.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Sociology

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