A fantasy of political agency

The Goblin Emperor — Katherine Addison


Addison’s 2014 novel The Goblin Emperor was a pleasant change of pace from so much of my current reading at the time (grimdark fantasies and War-On-the-Enlightenment SF). The world of her novel is deeply flawed; her protagonist, the goblin emperor of the title, is an abused, despised half-breed, hemmed in on all sides by the customs and laws of his land. It would have been comprehensible if he had spent his reign sticking the heads of those who had abused him on spikes. That is not the choice Maia makes. A protagonist who does his best to leave the world a better place than he found it really shouldn’t be something so rare that it catches my attention … but, alas, it is.

Archduke Maia Drazhar has the bad luck to be the half-goblin son of the emperor of the Elflands. He is a living reminder of a political marriage Emperor Varenechibel the Fourth came to bitterly resent. Since Varenechibel was well-stocked with sons whose faces he could tolerate (the Prince Nemolis, the Archduke Nazhira, and the Archduke Ciris), the Emperor exiled Maia to a remote and spartan estate, where he is watched over by the resentful and abusive Setheris and forgotten by almost everyone who matters.

The Elf kingdom, the Ethuveraz, has invented some modern political forms (parliamentary monarchy) and developed some advanced technology (airships, clockwork). However, it does not seem to have occurred to anyone there to implement a basic political caution: do not allow the current monarch and all the heirs he cares to acknowledge to ride in the same vehicle. The Elves do the Blanche-Nef one better when the airship Wisdom of Choharo crashes. There are no survivors. Not only were the Prince Nemolis, the Archduke Nazhira, and the Archduke Ciris on board but so was Emperor Varenechibel the Fourth. In one fiery moment, the Elflands are left without a ruler.

Or rather, they would have been rulerless if Maia had not been so despised and forgotten. Because Varenechibel never took steps to remove Maia from the succession and because the emperor certainly wouldn’t have let the half-goblin travel with him, Maia is the only legitimate heir left standing. The Emperor is dead; long live Emperor Edrehasivar Zhas, the 209th Emperor of the Elflands!

I suspect that at this point the only thing that keeps the ruling classes from panic at the prospect of a ruler who is rumoured to be an inbred lunatic and who was systematically abused to boot is that Maia is pretty obscure. Most people take a while to connect the dots and by that time the new Emperor has a track record.

There’s nothing in how he was raised to persuade Maia not to be Edrehasivar the Vindictive, Edrehasivar the Impaler, or Edrehasivar the Chairmaker. The empire doesn’t have much of a handle on checks and balances yet. It turns out that dumb luck can serve in place of precautions. The imperial realms get very, very lucky, because Maia is an essentially good fellow who does not want to make others suffer as he did. Unlike too many of the aristocrats, he can see the lower classes as humans who deserve consideration and sympathy. Maia is also all too aware how easily he could become Edrehasivar the Terrible. He makes a point of placing temptations to give in to vengeful urges, like Setheris his abuser, far, far out of reach.

Maia faces many challenges. Due to his neglected education, he is ignorant of many things he needs to know to order to be an effective emperor. The Untheileneise Court is filled with ambitious courtiers eager to exploit a naïve ruler. Other courtiers feel very strongly that a half-goblin has no right to rule elves at all. Moreover, it is discovered that the loss of the Wisdom of Choharo was no accident. Someone had planted a bomb on the airship, a bomb timed to exterminate almost the whole of the succession. That someone may be planning to eliminate the last remaining son of Varenechibel the Fourth.

The wreck of the Wisdom of Choharo and the death of the imperial family may seem contrived. In the sense that someone arranged it with the intention of killing the emperor and most of his heirs, it is. In another sense, it is completely believable that a government would decide that because most flights end safely, it is acceptable to put most of a government on one plane. The reason it is believable is because in 2010 Poland did just that, with tragic results.

Something the book goes out of its way to underline is that picking rulers through a system of inheritance is a chancy thing. Maia is a good emperor and if Maia thinks hard, there were other good emperors in ages past. More often there were rulers like the arrogant, inflexible Varenechibel the Fourth, a man who had a talent for making unfortunate situations worse through his pride and inability to admit error. There’s nothing to say that Maia’s heir won’t be as bad as Varenechibel, or worse. Time for the various houses of government to get cracking on constitutional limits on the sovereign’s power!

I find it very hard to put into words what a relief a character like Maia is, how pleasant it is to encounter an essentially good person. He refuses to give in to the darker urges his position would let him indulge. He uses the absurd amount of power he has been handed to try to leave the realm a better place than he found it. Throughout the book Maia is continually handed opportunities to get even for slights; he refuses to take advantage of them. When faced with affronts which most people would believe justify execution, he settles for lesser punishments (such as exile) whenever doing so is within his legal power.

Perhaps because I have recently read a couple of books in which female characters are lectured on their duty to abandon personal ambitions and focus on having babies for the good of the state, Maia’s concern for the status of women stands out. Women in the Ethuveraz are essentially property [1]. Maia believes that they should be allowed to have intellectual interests and careers. Having seen his mother’s miserable life and slow death, Maia is painfully aware that arranged marriages place a greater burden on women than on men. He cannot avoid an arranged marriage but he does everything in his power to assure his fiancée that he means her no harm.

A cynical writer or reader might say “this all only works out because the author wills it so” and that’s true. It is also true of every grimdark fantasy in which rivals struggle to see which of them can commit the most egregious outrages while assembling the tallest pile of skulls. Addison chose to make her protagonist a reformer. Real life seems painfully short on effective reformers and I do not in any way object to a novel whose central thesis is that it is possible to change the world for the better. That idea may seem fantastic but it is a fantasy I can get behind.

  1. I think very roughly on par with Britain’s treatment of women prior to the Married Women’s Property Act 1882. Not surprising because I think Britain, perhaps specifically Britain under the House of Hanover, was one of the author’s models.

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