Lately I’ve been surveying fantasy novels. By “surveying,” I mean I read at least the first 100 pages, on the basis that I need to give the author at least that much space to lay out the scenario, introduce the characters, and provide some indication of where the plot is headed. I won’t call this a marketing survey, because I rather obstinately don’t care all that much about marketing. Call it a genre survey. I feel a need to understand the fantasy genre in the form in which it’s found on the shelves of a bookstore in 2016, so that I won’t inadvertently tumble down a rabbit hole by devising a story that’s hopelessly hackneyed or unworkably dull.
Rare is the novel that carries me past the first 100 pages. Okay, I loved The Lies of Locke Lamora unabashedly. The sequel I made it all the way through, though it was heavy going. I ran out of steam in the middle of Book III, and haven’t gone back to it.
Once in a while I stumble upon a gem. If you’re looking for a good read (in fact, there’s a whole website called goodreads, though the amateur reviews there tend to be rather fannish), you may want to try The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison. I was up until after midnight the first night reading it.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way quickly: The names of the characters typically run to four or five syllables, and they tend to be more alike than different. I never did get the difference between Beshelar and Berenar straight in my head. The honorifics are also a tangle. “Mer” seems to be the elf equivalent of “Mr.,” “Min” the equivalent of “Mrs.” But then we get Osmer and Osmin, Osmerrem, Dach’osmer and Dach’osmin — and for the first hundred pages, the reader is likely to think those are first names.
The publisher has cleverly hidden the keys to the meanings of these tongue-twisters in the back of the book, where the reader will most likely miss them until the very end. Phooey.
That said … it’s a wonderful story. Maia is the fourth and least regarded son of the Emperor Varenechibel IV. He’s a half-goblin on his mother’s side, which means his skin is gray rather than pure elf white. His mother was sent into exile when he was a baby, and after she died Maia was sent off to be cared for (speaking loosely) by a cruel and habitually drunken ex-official. But suddenly, when Maia is 18, his father and also his three elder brothers (pure elves, all) are killed in the crash of an airship. Maia, who is not only a despised half-goblin but also entirely unacquainted with the ritual intricacies of life in a very rich and very intricate Imperial court, finds that he is the new emperor.
Smothered not only by the fine garments and elaborate jewelry but by his own sense of confusion and embarrassment, Maia struggles to learn what he needs to know. He soon survives two assassination attempts (neither of them, be it noted, by a paid assassin), chooses an arranged marriage for himself, and eventually learns to dance and ride a horse. He gradually learns that the emperor is not supposed to apologize. He meets his boisterous back-slapping goblin grandfather. He finally starts to figure out who his friends are.
It’s a little like growing up in any dysfunctional household, if you look at it that way.
There’s not a trace of swashbuckling. There are no wizards, no telepathy, and no shapeshifters. Though a couple of tiny bits of magic are employed, The Goblin Emperor is basically a gentle steampunk tale. And at the end of the novel, Maia is still a virgin. The nearest thing to romance is when he daringly starts using “I” rather than “we” when speaking to his future wife, and she reciprocates. It appears they may become friends.
That observation brings me to another linguistic wrinkle. Unlike English, the elf language (whatever it is) has polite and familiar forms not only for second-person pronouns (in English, thou vs. you) but also for first-person pronouns. Addison uses “we” for the polite first person singular, and occasionally has to mention that a character used “we” in the simple plural rather than in the polite first-person singular. This is the first time I can think of offhand that the English language simply failed to provide what an author needed.
If you can make it through the slightly stilted dialog and the bewilderment of names, you’ll almost certainly end up charmed by Maia as he transforms from a gawky and baffled teenager into a young emperor. I certainly was.