Recent Reading: THE GOBLIN EMPEROR by Katherine Addison

So, nice weekend. I went to the Canine Games at Purina Farms, and it was a pleasure to be able to take my two older girls to something fun. They miss out on so much since they’re basically retired from showing. It wasn’t actually raining, but I must say, it was on the damp side! The girls got horribly muddy and I had to periodically run them through wet grass to clean them up a bit, so ick, but they had a good time. They got to show off their (excellent) Rally skills, and try an unofficial Barn Hunt instinct test — both passed, but Pippa REALLY was into finding and trying to get at the rat. They got to play on agility equipment, too, and of course they got to meet many, many people who admired them as they deserve. Also! I saw my first-ever Silken Windhounds, a breed created from whippets and borzoi. They are not only lovely, they are practical for cold-winter regions like Missouri, because they love snow and cold weather. Here’s a picture in case you’re interested:


This picture is by Lee Kemp, Kemp Photography, and it perfectly illustrates that difference in size between Silkens and borzoi. The one in front is a Silken. The one behind is a borzoi. You see why people might appreciate Silkens! The size is so much more practical! Honestly, I think you have to be six feet tall and wearing diamonds to look good standing next to a borzoi. A Silken, whippet sized, is just about knee high. The two I met were both darker than the one in the picture above, both brindle and both with charming personalities.

Anyway, I also read books! I read Hodge’s CRUEL BEAUTY, which I liked quite a bit. I’m surprised in retrospect that I didn’t see the echo of the Tam Lin story coming, though the book did draw more heavily on the Beauty and the Beast story. Beautiful writing and yes, the house was especially delightful. I found Nyx more likeable than I’d heard some readers have.

And I read Hartman’s SERAPHINA, which I also really enjoyed. I’m glad I finally got a chance to read it! A strange, complicated relationship between dragons and humans going on in this world. I’ll look forward to a sequel.

But! The standout for the weekend was without question Addison’s THE GOBLIN EMPEROR.


I don’t know that I feel capable of writing a decent review for this book. But I can start by saying that it was published in 2014 and I plan to nominate for everything possible next year. This book belongs on any serious slate of nominees for the Hugo and Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. I would particularly like to see a stronger slate of novel nominees for the Hugo next year; a list from which it’s actually tough to pick your first place choice. I want this title on that list.

But other than that, I hardly know what to say. THE GOBLIN EMPEROR is like . . . it’s a bit like a cross between Cherryh’s Foreigner series and NK Jemisin’s THE KILLING MOON, except unlike the former it’s a single self-contained novel in one volume and unlike the latter it’s tightly focused on a single character. It’s an adult story, with a deliberate pace and a deep sense of place, but it certainly utilizes the YA coming-of-age plotline. It uses one of the most common fantasy tropes ever – young outsider becomes king – only it sets up a whole new standard for that trope.

I’d wish I’d written it, except it was such a pleasure to read.

The world:

We see almost nothing of the world other than the Untheileneise Court, but we see that in great detail.

Well, no, actually, we see relatively little even of the Untheilesneise Court: mostly we are confined to the Alcethmeret, the emperor’s principle residence.

Wait, it’s not even true that we see even the Alcethmeret in detail. No, we see it in depth. This world has tremendous weight and heft. The Untheilesneise Court has existed for thousands of years. We don’t need to be told all about its history: that history infuses every word of this story. The attitudes and customs and religion, the divisions and alliances within and without the court, the alliances and pacts and tension between this empire and its neighbors – everything is there. This world is all but palpable.

The language adds to this impression. The style of speech does not feel affected or false, but it is certainly very different from any modern American style. That’s one reason this story struck me as similar to the Foreigner series. The formal plural, the use of thee and thy only in the familiar singular, the overall diction – this is all brilliant. The complicated tiles and modes of address also add depth to the world. From personal experience, I am confident Addison has seen a good many comments about those complicated, hard-to-wrap-your-tongue-around names and titles. As you might guess, I enjoyed them. But I plan to buy this book in paper so that when I re-read it, I can flip back and forth to the glossary at the back.

The characters:

In the Foreigner universe, Bren Cameron is the outsider who serves as link between the reader and the world of the story. In THE GOBLEN EMPEROR, Maia is that outsider. A younger son, out of favor from birth, raised far outside the court, and erratically educated, Maia succeeds his father as emperor of the elves because of a tragedy that kills not just his father but also everyone ahead of him in the succession. The narrative is a tightly focused third person that follows Maia into the court and through the first eventful months of his reign. Though the other characters are well drawn, none of them is anything close to a secondary protagonist: This is Maia’s story, period.

Which is fine, because Maia is a tremendously sympathetic protagonist. He is heavily influenced by his memory of his mother, a goblin woman who died when Maia was eight. He owes his empathy and sense of duty to her. He is also profoundly affected by the miserable isolation of the ten years that followed his mother’s death, which left him with a horror of cruelty and a lingering social awkwardness. Though his sense of propriety prevents him from any dramatic public denunciation of his father, when he takes the formal name of Edrehasivar VII instead of following his father’s choice of Verenechibel, his choice shows a sharp rejection of his father and his father’s policies.

Naturally, after becoming emperor, Maia is no less an outsider. His continuing loneliness would be heartbreaking, except the reader can see long before Maia himself that his closest attendants have become, if not actual friends, then surely the closest thing an absolute ruler can hope for. Besides, by the end of the story, I think the reader can be quite confident that Maia will find companionship and even true friendship with his soon-to-be wife. I don’t know if Addison/Monette plans a sequel, but I’d be right there, not least because I would love to see Maia’s relationship with Csethiro Ceredin develop. (And how about that name, eh? There’s a pronunciation guide at the back of the book, along with the glossery.) There’s plenty of room for a sequel, in fact – I would love to see the bridge across the Istandaärtha built; I want to see Maia establish policies that will improve the lives of the common people of his empire; I want to know what happens about that border fortress built on the gravesite of the Nazhmorhathveras people. But there is no actual need for a sequel, since the story does reach a satisfying conclusion in this book.

One final note: I was right to put this book off till I had time to read it. Don’t start THE GOBLIN EMPEROR unless you have time to finish it. Despite the formal language, unusual names, quiet tone, and deliberate pace, it’s almost impossible to put down.

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5 thoughts on “Recent Reading: THE GOBLIN EMPEROR by Katherine Addison”

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed THE GOBLIN EMPEROR. I thought Addison/Monette did a great job with the world and the characters. I really enjoyed her pushback against some of the assumptions of grimdark fantasy, especially the idea that the world will punish anyone who even tries to be a decent person. I’d love to see a sequel.

  2. By the way, you probably already know this, but ANCILLARY SWORD is out. I just finished it, and I thought it built very well on ANCILLARY JUSTICE. I don’t know whether Leckie is planning a trilogy or a continuing series, but either way, I’m looking forward to the next installment.

  3. I’m so glad that you loved THE GOBLIN EMPEROR as much as I did. It’s my favourite book of the year to date. I certainly hope that there is another book forthcoming from Addison, whether a sequel or a standalone fantasy of the same quality.

  4. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear she plans to write a sequel — I checked on the Katherine Addison website. On the other hand, if it is a nominee for major awards next year, maybe she’d change her mind. And yes, if not, I’m definitely interested in anything else she writes under that name.

    And yes, Linda, I picked up Ancillary Sword at Archon. I’m not rushing to read it because I’m enjoying the anticipation.

  5. My husband and I are the official photographers for the borzoi/silken windhound photo you featured in this blog. I agree that silken windhounds are a very practical and loving breed. However, I wish to state that you should give the photo credit when due.

    Lee Kemp, Kemp Photography

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