April 4th, 2014

goblin king


The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.

Raise the clockwork bridge!
Advancement fights tyranny,
if you do it right.

I read this back during the weekend of Jess & Rasheem's wedding, & subsequently lost my notes. When I read I either fold a big index card in half or a piece of paper into quarters & I write my notes-- with page numbers-- on it. It helps me remember specific things & find them in context, but now...lost. Well, "lost" them; I am sure I stuck them in another book to start using as notes, I just can't remember which, & I've waited too long & now I have to write something before I get lost. That's fine, really, though, because I mostly have generalized things to say about this book. Like, first & foremost I liked it a lot! So the plot, in a nutshell, is that the King of Elfland & all of his heirs die in a zeppelin crash, & his half-goblin son-in-exile inherits the throne, & he does his best not to fail. "Elf" & "goblin" are-- or at least appear to me to be-- different ethnic subtypes of the same species.

So here is a thing: I don't like the tendency of epic fantasy to make up unreadable names full of uncommon consonants & apostrophes. I'm of the Book of the New Sun school of thought; I want names to be, well, names. I think the land of Fra'frazz has less verisimilitude than the Black Hills, to make up an example out of thin air. Now, conlang nerds are the big exception to the issue; if you know your linguistics, you can runaround the whole game. Constructed languages are great. I just wish I'd known there was a glossary in the back; I ran out on the train ride home because I didn't know about the endpapers, & I never got to consult them; learn from my mistakes!

The story is political & personal, in turns. My biggest pet peeve-- way more than Scrabble Gobbledegook proper nouns-- is an incompetent & stupid protagonist. Not a flawed protagonist-- that is of course necessary, & the Goblin Emperor Maia is-- but one who is so dumb that we the reader experience less of the story. Or well...how to put this. So my big problem with Moffat's Sherlock is that we the viewer are smarter than Sherlock Holmes. Watching from home, if you can't figure out "A Study in Pink," well, then you are not a good detective...so when Sherlock Holmes can't figure it out before me, I feel cheated. Sort of the same; when I the reader am watching an author be clumsy in exposition & foreshadowing with characters too stupid to figure it out? I hate that.

So...this is the opposite of that? Not quite what I call "competency porn"-- something like Queen's Thief-- but a more moderated, measured version of it. Maia's not useless as emperor. In fact, he's pretty good at it, & when the story drops hints as to what is to come, the characters catch those hints....or at least, often enough. Another interesting thing about the book are the layers of subversiveness in it. That is, Addison writes the serving staff & the other people usually invisible in a fantasy story-- why talk about cupbearers & who is pouring the wine, Aragorn & the horse-lord are arguing!-- as characters, but at the same time, the noble characters don't see them as people.

If they do, as Maia does, they have to stop, because the class system in place is more powerful than the people in the class system. The narrative tensions of the story are all class driven-- the minority goblin ethnicity correlating to poverty, as a rule-- with Ayn Rand terrorists who have a surprisingly good point, the rich versus the noble, the old money versus the new, & social order versus technology...& the poor generally being shafted across the board. The biases are real, but not authorial, & the authorial voice similarly holds off on being condemnatory or preachy. She lets her writing do the talking.