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This is on the Hugo ballot with a good chance of taking the rocket. I can see why: it falls so very squarely into the tradition of coming of age novels within the science fiction and fantasy valued by Worldcon fandom. I didn't read it because it was on the Hugo ballot. I read it because my friend bohemiancoast wrote two reviews of it (http://bohemiancoast.livejournal.com/188825.html): one focussing on how enjoyable the book is, the other on how unrealistic are the politics it depicts. The review intrigued me.

So go read that, and when you've read that, open up the link for a third aspect.


The Goblin Emperor is a fantasy of the youthful outsider coming to maturity in circumstances where he cannot take his home for granted. Unexpectedly inheriting his father's throne, Maia must make his way at his father's imperial court, coming as an outsider to that court after his father's and brothers' sudden deaths. Maia is positioned as an outsider in the imperial court in two ways. He is the disregarded, junior, half-blood and unwanted prince who would have been marginalised within the imperial family and the empire even if he had been reared in his father's household. But he was not reared at court. He grew up in exile in a very small household where his only peer was his frustrated and abusive cousin and guardian, given an education badly skewed by both the character of his guardian and the consequent limitation of his library. Maia sets off for the palace leaving nothing he values behind him, and with nothing to take with him except the company of his hated guardian, his memories of his loving mother, and a patchy education in family history and law. His clothes are shabby and too small; he can't ride; he can't dance; he has no conversation; he knows little of the land and nothing of the people he is destined to rule.

Now there are at least two major fantasy treatments of the first kind of outsider: Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan and Hobb's fitzChivalry Farseer.

Miles Vorkosigan is the outsider at the imperial court of Barrayar partly by being an insignificant branch on the imperial tree but mostly because the challenges involved in dealing with his stunted growth and fragile physique place distance him from the traditions of his warlike and aristocratic culture. His personal challenge is to overcome his physical handicaps to participate fully in a family and a culture under strain in the wake of major wars. Miles however is the child of privilege, bred and reared in a loving and competent family, and in particular by a supremely competent mother. In his efforts he has available to him, and in maturity can recognise, all the education and support that a loving and powerful family can provide.

FitzChivalry Farseer's situation as a boy reared by men is actually more similar to Maia's in some ways. As a royal bastard he is an outsider at the court of Buckkeep in the SIx Duchies, ignored by the court while he is not a threat, only to be threatened when he ceases to be insignificant. Like Maia he is reared by servants of the ruler, who are not players at court. Like Maia his sympathies are often with the powerless. He also must come to terms with his differences from the royal norm (in his case the capacity to bond mentally with animals) while dealing with the responsibilities that accrue to royalty. Unlike Maia he receives an excellent princely education at the hands of his mentors, the royal assassin and the stable master, who between them school him in both peace and war.

There are many, many instances of the story of the prince reared in exile coming into his power in science fiction and fairy tale alike. Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy comes immediately to mind. Heinlein's lost boy, Thorby Baslim, is reared outside his family by a single man, and comes unexpectedly while still very young to a position of power. But like so many others, Thorby's story is about his growing up away from the court, and ends when he arrives there. So perhaps I should also mention Double Star, where the down-and-out actor is coached to take the place of the dead prince, and finds himself competent once he has settled into his role. I could mention McCaffrey's Dragonflight, Cherryh's Cyteen, Lee's The Birthgrave, Card's Ender's Game, Herbert's Dune, but this review is too short to contain so much detailed comparison.

Maia is not like Miles, reared by a loving family. Maia's mother loved him, but died when he was eight, and left him little save the memory of love, and a habit of religious observance. His guardian is a cousin, but is neither loving nor competent, but rather an abusive drunk. Maia is healthy, but his education, such as it was, did not stretch to bodily skills. Maia is not like FitzChivalry, reared by servants. Maia's mother reared him to think of servants as family, but although that is shown as a major element of Maia's motivations in power, it is (perhaps a minor flaw in the book) not shown in his relations with the servants of his youthful exile. Unlike either Miles or FitzChivalry Maia is not educated to be a prince. And unlike either Barrayar or the Six Duchies, Ethuveraz is not dealing with the actuality or aftermath of war, but is settled, peaceful and rather dull, its established aristocracy dealing rather with the strains of trade and early industrialisation.

So if neither character nor plot nor story are in any way novel, what are readers responding to that makes this book Hugo-worthy? I think that the answer is this: that from the first Maia is consious and reflective of his own status as an incompetent outsider growing into his imperial role. Taking nothing - not family, nor friends, nor knowledge, nor skills, nor servants - for granted, knowing that he knows very little about anything, from the outset he tests every decision he makes and much of what he says against everything he knows. So when we see him establishing (from scratch) his network of friends and supporters and growing into his imperial role, we see, in shorthand, how he balances his knowledge and the resources available to him alongside his hopes and his fears to become the emperor many of us would all like our emperors to be.

So in the best tradition of Hugo-winning science fiction we have here a fantasy of the competent hero. But Maia's competence is not in battle and game playing (Vorkosigan, or Ender Wiggin), or politics and diplomacy (Vorkosigan again, or Ariane Emory). His competence is essentially emotional intelligence, and the ability to use it to make good decisions in conditions of uncertainty. And perhaps this is what makes him so appealing to science fiction fans, whose traditional view of themselves is that this is a quality they lack, but whose experience of science fiction fandom is that this is a journey they too have made.

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
heleninwales
1st Aug, 2015 12:16 (UTC)
Sadly I just get an "Access is denied" when trying to view bohemiancoast's post. It must be friends-locked. However, your review was very interesting in itself.
hairyears
2nd Aug, 2015 00:15 (UTC)
Same here.
bohemiancoast
2nd Aug, 2015 18:06 (UTC)
Sorry, yes, my post is friends-locked. Here's what I wrote:

I am so conflicted about this book. I have two completely different opinions about it.
The first review: I loved this book. I find novels harder to read as I grow older; other things compete for my time, it’s hard for novels to gain and keep my attention. I was enraptured by The Goblin Emperor from almost the first page, and despite taking it to bed on my Kindle so that I would gracefully fall asleep without backlighting, I read it all the way through to the early hours.

This is a coming-of-age novel where the main character, Maia, a young half-elf, half-goblin man, unexpectedly finds himself emperor of the Elves after his father and three elder brothers are killed in an airship accident. He’s been abused by his guardian since his mother’s death, and has never received the sort of education a prince would. Over the course of the novel, he gradually learns how to be emperor, gathers people around him, treats them with kindness and gains their loyalty. The world-building is lovely; we are in a steampunk fantasy world part way through an industrial revolution. Rather than large-scale fantasy battles, the primary action of the novel is in the details of court life and empire management. Obviously not everyone is on our hero’s side, but Maia and his allies foil the plots against him. At the end of the novel we have solved a mystery, and are optimistic for the future of the world, the Emperor’s place in it, and his personal happiness.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read. Some people don’t like the language and, in particular, the multiple forms of address that mean it’s none too straightforward to keep characters clear in your mind at the start. But I got over that within minutes; I suppose I might have failed to spot a place or two where a character was referred to by different names but not many. You obviously root for Maia, but he’s surrounded by interesting, well-drawn characters. You believe that the many people you meet have motivations and lives of their own, and you understand why they’re working for, or occasionally against, Maia. The world’s fascinating, the people are interesting, the stultifying atmosphere of courtly life is vividly drawn. It’s a must-read, one of the great fantasy novels of the decade, an antidote to a genre full of clichés, and a great choice for your Hugo vote.

Now, the second review. The entire novel is a social justice warrior wish-fulfilment fantasy. It would probably help if you believe that all political rulers are basically bad and that all the problems of the world would be solved, and quickly, if governments merely acted with compassion and fairness at all times. Maia is a benevolent dictator and it kind of works out for him. He does what he thinks is right, and sometimes that embarrasses or discombobulates people, but it never gets them killed. He is never once troubled with monetary concerns. He never sits in a room while advisers give him three appalling choices and has to pick between them.

Now, it is certainly true that people are generally good and if you treat them kindly and fairly they will respond well. The huge fantasy leap in this novel is the belief that if you treat people kindly they will do their jobs competently. A small example; Maia promotes a messenger to be his private secretary, who is then relentlessly, gloriously, able throughout the book. Forget plotting against Maia; the first thing any would-be unseater should have done is stick a dagger between the secretary’s ribs.

But we all know of organisations where hard-working, good-natured, thoughtful people have nevertheless managed to come together to create a complete disaster. I’ve worked for wonderful, idealistic, ineffectual people, and total bastards who have made a lot of good things happen. Running things takes more than just good nature and good will; leaders have to be able to not only make hard decisions, but act with alacrity when their decisions turn out to be wrong. This isn’t really an issue for Maia; none of his decisions ever turn out to be wrong.

...more in next comment...
bohemiancoast
2nd Aug, 2015 18:07 (UTC)
Some people have described this as a book about court politics, but there really isn’t any political manoeuvring in it. With one exception, the characters he trusts are trustworthy and the characters he doesn’t aren’t. The one exception is the betrayal of a minor character; it would have been trivial to change the book to make that a major character and it would have improved it. There’s a couple of points where Maia has to arbitrate, which he does; but nowhere where he has to trade in political capital, balance his long and short-term goals, disappoint a personal ally for the greater good, keep his cards close to his chest, sack a friend for incompetence, promote someone he doesn’t like because he’s the best person for the job, use his enemies against each other, or in fact do anything political at all. He just naively does what he thinks is right and, adorably, it turns out to be.

Apart from the courtly language and some slightly old-fashioned attitudes, the elves are just humans in posh frocks, and the goblins, who we see little of, are just slightly more colourful humans. There’s a ton of messaging about racism, sexism, gender parity and so on, and it feels like it all comes from a wellspring of 21st century liberal values. Obviously that’s very comforting for the reader, who likes that sort of thing and feels affinity with the kind hero. And this is a very comfortable book. But it’s not a convincing one.

I kept wondering if there was a less Pollyanna-like novel waiting to come out. There’s a scene in which Maia chooses a signet, and the keeper-of-the-signets explains they keep all the old moulds. That would have allowed a subplot where documents were forged under the name of the previous emperor. Maia, early on, reflects that his abusive guardian did actually convey a lot of the information he needed to survive at court; that relationship could have been shown to have been much more complicated than Maia’s perspective of it, but never is. The very first scene of all sets the book up as an idiot plot: in no world ever have a ruler and his three heirs travelled in the same vehicle, let alone a hydrogen-inflated airship. You don’t need a bomb to destroy a hydrogen airship; a spark will do it. Did someone engineer that? We don’t know. We are introduced to a scheme for a glorious bridge. That could have led to a spectacular bridge disaster. But no, that's not what's going on here.

So, despite the good writing and world-building, and the sketch of the development of the hero, this is a book that promises far more than it delivers. The plot is paper-thin and the structure is deeply flawed. It might still be a great choice for your Hugo vote, if only because I am confident that the various Puppies will hate it.

Which review is fair? I have no clue. Is The Goblin Emperor worth reading? Most certainly.

Finally, Steven says “have you read Lord Valentine’s Castle?” I have not, though maybe I should. He hasn’t read this, yet, so neither of us can tell if they’re very alike. But they clearly have some commonality of theme.
coth
2nd Aug, 2015 21:26 (UTC)
Thank you!
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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