Spawn of Mars
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The Goblin Emperor
Hugo Awards 2015 - Novel by Katherine Addison
Friday, May 29, 2015 6:59 pm
I am a voter for the 2015 Hugo Awards. I am posting my thoughts about the candidate works. Be warned that spoilers abound.

Maia, the half-goblin and youngest son of the Emperor of the Elflands, banished with his mother from the court, inherits the crown when the Emperor and all other his other sons are killed in an airship accident (which was, in fact, no accident). Maia is not at all prepared and has to find his place.

To begin with, this novel passed one of my standard tests: I never cringed at the dialogue. Sometimes I cringed at what was being said, but never the way it was being said. None of it was cloying or cute. Indeed, none of the writing made me cringe. That may seem like faint praise, but it's not. Addison's style is controlled and effective. She revealed things in a sound order, with a sound pacing. Things followed one another well and I wanted to keep reading. Her fantasy world did not dazzle me and seems a bit conventional (even to me, who doesn't read much fantasy), but it worked.

At one point, Maia receives a letter from Mer Celehar, who is investigating the sabotage that killed the previous Emperor. The letter is long and describes everything Celehar has been up to. Momentarily I thought: "This stuff is good. Addison should have narrated this action as a sub-story instead of having it relayed in a messenger speech." But immediately I realized two things. First, the action was engaging enough, even if presented at a remove. Second, any sub-story — that is, a chapter from Celehar's point of view — would have been contrary to the novel's approach. Everything is from Maia's point of view. Maia is in every scene. This is a book about Maia as Emperor, not about court intrigue and the like. The intrigue is there, of course, but only as something around Maia. In the end, Addison's disciplined maintenance of one point of view keeps you properly bound to Maia's travails.

Early on there are some conventional hints of steampunk (most notably: transport via airship). I appreciate such things, not least because I favor tech even in my fantasy. And while this is not a steampunk novel by any means, the clockwork steam-tech is actually relevant. The Clocksmiths' Guild figures in both the sabotage that starts the tale and the building of a wonderful mechanical bridge. This bridge is an occasion of Maia's political assertion and, in the end, symbolic of Maia's nature as an Emperor. It is pleasing that the tech is not just decoration.

This being a novel published in 2014, I was braced (as ever) for social nonsense.

Celehar has been disgraced for having a male lover who was also a murderer. A nobleman is afraid of having a young man interviewed in wake of an assassination attempt because, of course, he is lusting after that young man. One of Maia's goblin half-sisters became a pirate captain and has a "wife." This final tidbit is more like signaling from Addison than agitprop, but the implication is that a woman naturally might have a "wife." These things are tolerable, however, not least because no character says: "Golly, there's nothing wrong with loving a man, Celehar!" And indeed, the characters, at least, tend to accept that such loves are "unnatural." So the homosexual messaging was mild.

On the other hand, the feminist messaging kneecaps the novel. And I mean kneecaps it. Despite some misgivings, I was really enjoying things — and then in Chapter 34 (of 35), we get the full-on "Hear Me Roar" denouement. Now, the things presented are not non sequiturs. Addison is actually a careful writer, and I'm generally impressed with the way everything was neatly plotted, not least the intrigue. Nothing in Chapter 34 comes out of the blue. However, it was all better left unsaid.

Except — I realized sadly as I read on — Chapter 34 was Addison's point. She could no more leave it unsaid than simply stop writing.

Take, as an example, Maia's elven half-sister Vedero. Earlier she had been promised as wife to a son of a prominent family. There had been no formal contract, however. And as it turns out, she does not wish to be married. Maia asks her what she would do, were she not given in marriage. And she replies that she would "study the stars."

Yes, fine, there are girls who would rather be scholars than wives. It's a character touch, it explains her refusal, it's a nod to the conventions of this girls-can-do-anything era of ours. But in Chapter 34, Maia joins Vedero at the telescope. Vedero is, of course, wearing trousers. She goes on about the wondrous telescope — which was designed by a woman. Then she goes on about her colleagues, of whom one is translating works of poetry, another is writing a treatise, another has started a magic school for girls... Yea, all sorts of women disdaining marriage and motherhood! "Women," as Vedero says, her shoulders "stiffly defensive," "can and should do the same intellectual work as men."

Thus, what was a tolerable character touch becomes jarring propaganda. STEM for the elven lasses!

You realize that many noblewomen in the book have been acting, in one way or another, against their duties — chafing, bristling, brooding. Again, Chapter 34 is not out of the blue; it is, in retrospect, inevitable. Earlier, Maia's Empress-to-be said that she preferred to be allowed to choose her duties. What a colossal misunderstanding of duties! We do not choose our duties. What we are imposes duties. Some things we can choose to be: a scholar; a wife. Some things we can not choose to be: a woman; a daughter. But in either case, the duties are never chosen. They simply must be fulfilled. And yes, sometimes a prior duty prevents us from choosing to be, say, a scholar instead of a wife.

The very worst feminist moment comes in the excuses made for Shevean. She is mother of the other surviving heir to the throne, Maia's younger nephew Idra. Shevean participated in a failed coup against Maia. And Idra says of her:
She is very fierce. [...] She would not be what she is if she ever had something given her that was a burden equal to her strength. One hears people say it all the time — 'she should have been a son to her father' — but it is true. If she had been a son, she would have had a duty that went beyond children.
Idra does elaborate by describing Shevean's simple rage against Maia, who, like everyone it seems, would not conform to her wishes; but the fundamental blame belongs, of course, to patriarchy.

In fairness, Chapter 34 is not only feminist claptrap. Essentially it is the crystallization of Maia as Emperor. The specifically feminist stuff is there because Maia is the Emperor who builds the bridges. After all, Maia is the one who, among so much else, allowed a woman to be one of his bodyguards. Why, this is a Goblin Emperor that even a 21st-century American feminist can support!

Not least because Maia is essentially a woman.

When I started the novel, his name threw me. "Maia" is a woman's name. Oh, wait, no, the pronouns indicate "Maia" is a he. Well. Okay. Fantasy novel; goblin language; I don't know. Fine. Maia is a he. And you have to keep reminding yourself that he is. It's as if Addison is trolling you, giving him a girl's name and daring you not to notice his essential girlishness.

I don't mean in his emotions, as such. I think Addison does a good job depicting Maia's pain and difficulties. He is quite credible as an abused, neglected, overwhelmed, and sad young person. However, he is not credible as an exemplar of anything male.

This is most evident in the way that all his struggles are resolved in the infamous Chapter 34. Basically, he makes friends with all those who have not attempted to overthrow or assassinate him. With so many of the people who had distrusted or troubled him, he achieves a kind of rapport.
Idra, Csethiro, Nedao, Vedero: instead of bulwarks, he began to feel he had alliances, that his life — for perhaps the first time since his mother died — was not merely a matter of surviving from one hostile encounter to the next.
Now, Maia is not utterly naive, nor is the book. As he says to his bodyguards:
I believe that the Adremaza meant his advice for the best, but he was cruelly wrong. I do not ask, or expect, you to be friends with me as you are friends with other mazei, or other soldiers in the Untheileneise Guard. But it... it's silly to deny that we hold each other in affection.
And when the bodyguards affirm their affection for him, Maia says: "Then we will be a different sort of friends."

None of this is handled shabbily. It is affecting. But as a culmination it is so feminine. The word "alliances" is used but what we actually have here is an end to Maia's emotional isolation. This is what terminates his imperial worries. His reign will be good because he has friends. He has gained no insights or skills regarding the flourishing of his realm; but gosh and golly, people really like him. They do!

Honestly. What a girl.

For a while I was excited by The Goblin Emperor. Here is a book I'd never heard of, that did not involve space fleets or cybernetics, that I began reading just to judge it for an award; yet, over a weekend, I kept returning to it gladly, in between this or that. Then the sour bits accumulated. Then Chapter 34 hit.

Is it a well-written book? Yes. Is it worth reading? Yes. Does it deserve to be on the Hugo shortlist? Sure. Do I regret reading it? Not really.

I don't know anything about Addison. I am not judging the book based on her race, sex, or whom she voted for in 2012. I do not deny the simple quality of this book because of its feminist message. It is not merely message fiction; there is a good story here. But in the end, the message is never irrelevant to the evaluation of a book. I would never award first place to a novel with the shopworn attitude of The Goblin Emperor.
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