The Traitor Baru Cormorant

The Traitor Baru Cormorant
Seth Dickinson

Holy cats. That was quite the experience, and one of the banner novels of 2015. I suspect that it is too polarizing for major award consideration, but I’m not sure any release generated more conversation among a certain kind of genre fan. And by “certain kind,” I mean the type of reader who gets excited about stories of accountants managing fictional empires. Yes, that would be me. In my defense, authors like Dan Abraham and K.J. Parker have been doing just fine with long division fantasy for several years now, so clearly it is a viable thing. We even have tradition on our side – no less a warhorse than Ivanhoe includes a crucial scene wherein a character teaches another about double entry bookkeeping. This is all important and fascinating stuff. Really.

Our titular hero, Baru Cormorant, is a math whiz who becomes a top accountant for The Empire of Masks. Naturally, the novel is thus absorbed with the question of cost: the literal costs of empire and rebellion, and the figurative costs of power, ambition, and assimilation. Baru’s tropical home is absorbed by The Masquerade when she is very young, but Baru is noticed early on for her developing intellect and is swept into The Masquerade’s vast schooling network to train as a future bureaucrat. The Empire is a meritocracy, of course, with Imperial positions open to all qualified candidates, regardless of racial and ethnic background. Schooling is a part of the benevolent face put on by the Empire (masks have many meanings here), one that includes technology (sanitation and hygiene in particular), economic rationalization, and stability. This undeniably positive face cloaks policies of rigid order, eugenics, strict moral behavior, and other Big Brother-y horrors.

The other main question the book poses is that of change, and how to drive it. I found this particularly relevant as, at the time of writing, we are still in the middle of candidate nomination battles for the 2016 U.S. Presidential election Dickinson asks, through Baru and her frenemy Tain Hu, whether change is best provoked from a position of power inside an institution, or through bottom up rebellion from the outside. In the fight on the Democratic side, one voice (Hillary Clinton) is advocating gradual change from within, while another (Bernie Sanders) preaches grassroots revolution. Both of them, and in turn the majority of the Democratic Party, want similar outcomes, but have stark disagreements about the mechanisms required for change. (Don’t listen to arguments over policy outcomes – this is essentially a debate over methods.) Baru has sworn an oath of vengeance against The Masquerade for conquering her homeland and, in the process, killing family and friends. Tain Hu is a noblewoman in the territory Baru oversees, with a constant stream of plots and conspiracies designed to evict The Masquerade. The two argue throughout the book over method – who is more likely to see victory over the common enemy. Dickinson provides few easy answers as conflict develops, then rages.

We see the world almost entirely through Baru’s eyes. She is, spoiler alert, a traitor. Traitor to what, though? We know from the first that she is plotting to betray the empire that has developed and promoted her. She must bury her loyalties deep however, because any hint of her real motivation will cost her the power she craves (also likely resulting in her unpleasant death). Baru’s secrets force her onto pathways that make her complicit with all of the imperialism that she claims to hate. Further, the power she gains can be used for self-aggrandizement or to assist her ultimate goal, but these are the same things, right? And all of the horrible things she either does directly, or cause through economic policy, these are in the service of a greater good. Of course they are. Personal power and advancement are necessary to eventually free her people, and the ugly side of colonialism is an unfortunate but necessary side effect. The ends obviously justify the means, so Baru is in no way a traitor to herself, or those around her. Of course not. When she gazes into the abyss of her own soul, Baru can naturally feel at peace with what she is doing. She is indeed a serene creation throughout.

There is no getting around the brutality of Dickinson’s book. Not just in descriptive violence, though there is that, but in the damage done to relationships, to cultures, and to souls. Colonialism and empire are popular topics right now in the genre, and Dickinson wades in with a sword in both hands. At what cost civilization? At what cost rebellion? The Masquerade is unquestionably evil, sewers and vaccinations notwithstanding, but how much is Baru willing to pay to fight them? And how far are we willing to let her go before we turn on her? The book’s coda is a gut punch, one that I should have seen coming but chose not to, though really it’s the only way this story can resolve itself. History is clear that when empires are on the march, there are few happy endings. I have to keep reading this series to see what happens, to see if Baru’s sacrifices ultimately have meaning. There is plenty more to talk about, notably the homophobic strain in the empire and its effects. I’m a little less qualified to talk about that though, and will stick with politics for now.

This ended up being more of a dry, academic look at Baru Cormorant that doesn’t do justice to the visceral magnetism of the book. The is one that really grabs life by the lips and yanks; a story that stays in one’s mind like a recalcitrant splinter that won’t be dislodged. Plenty of crunchy stuff in there to engage the brain, but also an icy, slowly closing fist that won’t let the reader disengage. It’s not pretty, but it’s impossible to turn away from. Dickinson writes deeply frightening, probing stuff; necessary reading right now if we are to really confront the realities of our world order. I would recommend chasing Baru Cormorant with something light and fluffy though – it’s not healthy to be heavy all the time.

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Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Conan the Barbarian (2011)

With the family out in Japan, a small bit of free time opened up for such luxuries as movies. Or, at least, movies targeted at a demographic over age ten. I’ve had a promo DVD of Conan sitting around since my brief fling in film-related work and figured it was time to give it a try. A good thing the children were out as well, since this quickly earns its R rating. (One would certainly expect that, considering the source material.) Keeping in mind that I don’t watch many movies anymore and am not qualified to be a “film critic,” I had a few thoughts.

I haven’t read the entirety of the Conan canon, but enough of the Robert Howard stories to respect them for being more than their pulp origins might suggest. It’s not Sarte, but there’s a touch of philosophy, social criticism, and, to be honest, some troubling attitudes in the stories underneath the kinetic action. The original film adaptation strips out most of the former, doubles down on the latter, but still finds itself a deserved cult classic. It also led to pale imitations like The Beastmaster and Krull, for which we may praise or condemn; mileage may vary, possibly in direct proportion to viewer alcohol consumption.

The 2011 version of Conan utters a sentence or two that might be construed as sociology, but mostly he just glares. Smolderingly so. This version is even more gleefully violent than the last, with bewilderingly inventive ways to obliterate characters and less story between the bloodletting. Finally, there are nods towards diversity and gender equality, but they are Hollywood nods. We’ll talk more about this later.

To give the film some credit, the scenery is fantastic. The villages, cities, camps, castles, and nature in between are diverse and beautiful. One might even suspect that parts of the screenwriting budget were requisitioned for props and locations. Unfortunately, all of the eye candy feels like it’s in the same neighborhood; somehow the sense of a vast world is completely lost. I don’t know how exactly one would change this, but the something about the pacing or editing gives the feeling that one location is a quick hike from another. Desert slave camp today, mountain monastery tomorrow.

There isn’t much to say about the plot. It is utterly predictable and riddled with holes, but anymore, I expect nothing less from Hollywood. To be honest, I don’t know how one would cram a coherent, large-scale story into just two hours, and clearly, not many writers or directors do either. We can give movie makers a pass and acknowledge this, but I don’t think that’s fair. With the budgets the go into these projects, Hollywood should be able to afford the very best writers. After all, isn’t storytelling the foundation? If I excuse Conan because making a tight, consistent, and epic plot is difficult, there’s really no point in ever watching movies. I want to hold these to a higher standard, just like I demand the best from the books I read.

As for diversity, we’re looking at another Hollywood token effort. There is a black dude, but not only is he a sidekick, he’s not allowed to come along for the good parts. I don’t know why this decision was made; Conan says that he must go it alone and his friend agrees. At least he isn’t killed, which I guess is progress. There are two prominent women. Both are allegedly strong and independent, and both demonstrate this by killing people. Hooray. Conan’s love interest starts out with promise, but it isn’t long before she is doing as Conan says, getting herself in trouble, and being fought over by the men while screaming in terror. It feels very mansplain-y. “Yes, she has no agency, but it totally makes sense in the story. Also, check it out, she stabs this dude.”

Of course, reading this, many people would respond with one of the following: “It’s just the way things were back then,” “What did you expect from an action movie for guys?” or possibly, “Why does everything have to be about this anyway? Can’t we just have fun without worrying about feminists?” Just like plot issues, accepting these excuses forces us to devalue our opinions and expectations. I prefer to reverse the questions: Why NOT imagine a world where one group isn’t subjugated? Why NOT expect more from an action movie for guys? Why NOT build fun around feminism, equality, and diversity, rather than declaring it not fun? The fact that we are still fighting for this exceedingly low bar is depressing. I have to remind myself that things were once even worse.

At this point, I refuse to say that I’m thinking too much about this. I’m not angry about Conan, or even disappointed. The film was entertaining for what it was, I spent nothing but some time on it (not even fully engaged), and I don’t think anything in the movie was actually harmful to people. Well, real people. An awful lot of imaginary people suffered horrible demises. But, cries my heart, it could have been so much better. I rarely watch movies anymore not because of time, but because the reward is rarely worth the investment. I don’t read many crappy books because there are so many brilliant ones out there. I don’t listen to bad music because I have hundreds of jazz and classical albums at my disposal. I don’t watch many Hollywood productions because they fall so short of the entertainment I can get elsewhere. It wouldn’t take much to change that though. More attention paid to the underlying messages in the film, someone with actual writing credentials to work over the script a little, and the simple courage to strive for a sheen of originality, and Conan could have at least risen to cult hit status.

I am guessing that the film came and went with little impact. Had it made money or received critical acclaim, we would no doubt be seeing a train of sequels. Instead, it washed away in the sea of franchises and remakes, possibly to re-emerge some twenty years hence with yet another reboot. This time around though, I wasn’t ready for the next chapter, the only feeling I had at the end was a desire to see the Arnold version again. As someone or another said when teaching me about jazz, “If you’re gonna sound like Miles, people are just gonna go put on a Miles CD and forget about you. You gotta do your own thing.”

Before They Are Hanged

Before They Are Hanged

Joe Abercrombie

Middle books are always a challenge to review. I shouldn’t complain – I can only imagine how hard they are to write. Having wrapped up the second installment of Joe Abercrombie’s trope-bending First Law Trilogy, it’s time to put down a few thoughts. Unfortunately, as it’s hard to pin down exactly where Abercrombie is headed, both because this is the middle book and because he’s being coy, my reaction is going to be more of a series of opinions and bullet points. Much as I would love to dig deep into the profound literary themes as work here, pithy summation is probably the way to go.

– This book is not for everyone. Abercrombie is called Lord Grimdark for reasons, so some readers just aren’t going to enjoy the disembowelments, maces to faces, and shoulder-to-crotch cleavings. Those who aren’t put off by pulped heads and repeated taking of the Lord’s name in vain might enjoy a certain black hilarity; I’m pretty sure Abercrombie laughed while driving things so completely over the top. Witty banter gets a few chuckles, but it’s more the bleak absurdity of the overall story arc that kept me amused.

The First Law Trilogy gets this year’s Steven Erikson Memorial Award for secondary world with the shortest human lifespan. I’m pretty sure that I would last about three weeks as a character in these books, either mowed down by raiders, pulverized in a city sacking, victim of an out of control wizard battle, or just taken by run of the mill, peasant-class dysentery. The common folk must breed like rabbits to maintain the population base in the face of rampant predation.

– Characters Abercrombie from lesser grimdarkians, but I’m ambivalent about some of them suddenly becoming better people partway through the book. It’s fine for Captain West to be a solid guy, because that’s his role, but Logen Ninefingers or Inquisitor Glokta are more fun when complete jerks. I’m not sure that flashes of humanity suit them. Abercrombie might just be setting me up for a fall though, so I am keeping everyone at a distance. Also, I’m not sure what this preference says about me, and don’t want to think too deeply about it.

– I am just waiting for Bayaz to strip off his good-guy cloak and say, “Lookout suckas! There’s a new sheriff in town! BOW TO YOUR SENSEI!!” If we’re taking the anti-Gandalf path here, I’m going to laugh long and hard. (Don’t spoil this for me if we are!)

– Abercrombie is clearly having fun while he picks apart fantasy cliché. Characters are the obvious starting point, but he toys with plots, settings, and histories as well. I must admit that I have no idea how this will end. Convention dictates that the characters succeed in their every quest, evil is vanquished, and the Union survive because … well, there’s no particular reason why the Union should survive, beyond being whiter than half of their enemies, and more capitalist than the other. I’m sure the author has something entertaining in mind.

I’ll get to the third volume here sometime in the next nine months or so, at which point probing analysis will make an appearance. Until then, maybe some spoiler-free chatter? Anything I should have caught this time around?

The Hobbit (Movies)

The Hobbit (Movies)

I spent most of last week beset by illness, a situation further exacerbated by a serious case of the busies. The result? Blog neglect bordering on the criminal. Fortunately there is light at the end of the tunnel, though I suppose it’s possible that said light is an oncoming freight train.

Anyway, one more reason I have written less is a new cable connection to the Attic. I finally gave in, mostly because Spring is coming and I enjoy the daily background noise of Mariners baseball. There are other bonuses, free HBO for two years among them. I may or may not try Game of Thrones, but Mrs. Pep and I were quick to pounce on two Hobbit movies available for streaming. Shameful for a Tolkien fan like me to admit that I hadn’t yet seen any of the three, but that is the sad reality of my cinematic life.

I guess anyone who lives above ground knows that the movies are quite different from the books. While watching, I found it best to divide the changes into two groups: those made for cinematic convention and those made to give the movies the tone and weight that The Lord of the Rings more naturally holds. In general, I disagreed with the first, but have few complaints with the second. I haven’t read The Hobbit in a good twenty years or so, which leaves me somewhat less qualified to condemn much. I have a fear of writing, “I can’t believe that Peter Jackson did such and such, which no doubt left Tolkien spinning in his grave,” only to find out that the scene I ranted about was lifted word for word from the book. Stranger things have happened.

Let’s dig into the groan inducing bits first. I don’t do well with cliché or convention at the best of times, but movies drive me battier than most. The Hobbit manages to avoid many of the narrative excesses of typical Hollywood fare, but I suspect that has much to do with Tolkien’s willfully obtuse storytelling. (LOTR is notorious for violating rule after rule of good novel writing.) The films cave in to other flaws though. I don’t know if it’s the condensed run time to blame, but drama and action seem dialed up to an unreasonable degree in most mainstream movies. The pernicious influence of James Cameron and Michael Bay, perhaps? Unfortunately, The Hobbit is no exception. The action sequences are breathtaking to be sure, but everything seems more kinetic than it needs to be. I wouldn’t mind a few more less dramatic scenes, notably the trolls and the chase leading up to Rivendell.

Related to this is the constant fever pitch of conflict that must be drummed up at all times in cinema. Does Thorin really need to be pursued by Azog all the time? Does Laketown really need a moustachio-twirling and villainous mayor who opposes the brave and democratic, if surly and disreputable, rabble-rouser? Do the wood elves have to be not just aloof and isolationist, but full-on antagonists? I would have preferred a slightly more placid tale, though this is something I find myself saying almost every time I watch a movie or TV show. (I should note that most of my complaints about LOTR, particularly The Two Towers, fall along similar lines.)

On the other hand, there are changes I can get behind. The Hobbit is a pleasant book, but always feels like a light appetizer to me. This is especially true when one thinks about what is really going on in the background; something Jackson can’t avoid now that he’s unleashed LOTR on the world. Bilbo’s ring may have been a random trinket at the time, but we know what it really is and can’t possibly be expected to say something like, “Oh, well lucky Bilbo! What a convenient and useful little thing that ring is!” (Or Tolkien may have known full well. I’m uncertain, but I don’t remember any foreboding in the book.) The ring is the most obvious example, but there are others.

The throwaway line in the book about Gandalf going out to evict The Necromancer from Mirkwood is the biggest addition, and deserves the expansion Jackson gives it. In some ways, this is the real story of the time; dwarves and dragons are much more of a sidenote. Another point of interest is the opinions other factions show about the dwarves’ quest. Again, nothing much is said about this in the book, but re-establishing a powerful dwarven kingdom is a politically unsettling act. The wealth and industrial power of Thorin’s scattered people is going to rearrange the balance of power with humans and elves and, as Gandalf casually mentions, will attract attention in the coming war with Sauron. All of this is glossed over in the book, but adds a deeper context and perhaps a reason why Gandalf is engaged in the first place. I suppose it’s not in keeping with the happy go lucky tone of the book to talk about global economics or the imminent rise of Sauron, but I prefer it.

So this is probably the worst movie review anywhere, with no references to camera work, direction, acting, or anything. Trust Two Dudes to turn Hollywood movies into politico-economic analyses of imaginary places. Though at this point, I am just happy to be posting again, so I trust that loyal fans will roll with it all. I enjoyed The Hobbit, or at least what I have seen thus far, though I admit to preferring LOTR. I’ll watch the third as soon as I can, and may post more, if further reaction seems warranted.

The Bonehunters

The Bonehunters
Steven Erikson

I started reading Gardens of the Moon, the first Malazan Book of the Fallen, is 2007 or so. Many years later, I am through Book Six, though I have yet to write about any of them here. This is partly because I was already a third of the way in before Two Dudes even got off the ground, but mostly because I don’t know how to approach a ten volume epic in a single blog post. In fact, I’m not sure how to approach the whole of the Malazan series as a reader, let alone a critic. I believe the longest series I have read to this point in my life is six books long, when series is defined as a single narrative arc, not just stuff written in the same universe. Ten volumes, each a thousand pages or so each? I forget stuff inside a single book while I read, let along something I read four years ago.

Excuses aside, it’s time to talk about Malazan. My silent blog partner swears by the series, and any of our conversations about fantasy inevitably return to Erikson. I am not nearly the fantasy gourmet that he is, but I read many of what are now considered the roots of the genre. I am less up on current hits, but feel qualified enough to take on something major like Erikson’s Malazan and start to assess its position in fantasy. If the author ultimately succeeds at what I think he’s trying to do, Malazan will rank as one of the great, defining fantasy series of this era.

Before we dig in, I have one quick question. With all the outrage and arguing about grimdark, why does Erikson seem to get a pass? I rarely if ever see Malazan mentioned, though untold thousands have suffered grisly, horrid deaths and plenty of “bad’ people are viewpoint characters. Maybe the relative lack of rape? Too few f-words? I admit a hazy understanding of correct grit usage in fantasy, but these books seem a touch darker than, say, Shannara. Maybe I’m missing something crucial, or maybe it’s actually a pointless and silly argument.

Anyway, time to pull our heads out of the metaphysical clouds of genre. For those who are unfamiliar, Malazan Book of the Fallen is a ten volume fantasy series centered on the fictional Malazan Empire. The plot starts some time in Book Three, but doesn’t really get underway until Book Six. I suppose it demands a certain level of patience, but things are always entertaining enough to keep my attention. Erikson’s background in anthropology gives weight to the world building, which is stunning. Nothing in here is bland cliché, from the races and kingdoms on down to the salt of the earth types that form the core of the viewpoint characters. The world benefits from many years of gaming by the author and his collaborators, which is not normally the case. I can think of few bits of advice I would rather give to an aspiring author than, “Don’t novelize your role playing sessions. Nobody cares about them.” In this case however, Erikson’s deep experience within his own world is a huge plus.

One reason I waited so long to write is that figuring out what Erikson is after took me six books to get a handle on. (Or at least to think I have a handle on it.) My take goes back to some talks Jose, the other Dude, and I had about fantasy as a genre. We speculated, and I think most of us would agree, that fantasy offers the most freedom to the author of any genre, because anything is possible so long as some form of internal consistency is maintained. No constraints of the real world, of science, of history, or anything else. We just say, “Magic!” and nobody can impose any limits that the author doesn’t already set out. This may also be fantasy’s great curse, since the lack of walls makes it all the more frustrating when so much fantasy follows the same conventions. This tendency is at its very worst in epic fantasy, with its elves, dwarves, and farm boys of destiny.

Erikson seems to have looked at this situation and made two decisions. First, he is going to blow up every cliché possible. Second, he is going to write the epic-est epic fantasy ever. Sick of elves? How about Jaghut and T’lan Imass instead? Love battles between giant armies? What if the gods are physically joining in? Enjoy that thrill of the world possibly ending? How about the world, and all the parallel realms attached to it burning down? I’ve used the guitar amps turned to eleven joke before, but Malazan sets new standards. It’s like the Texas of fantasy – everything’s bigger – if Texas was a continent-spanning empire peopled with eight foot tall, invincible warriors, Houston burning down, Dallas decimated by plague, Tim Duncan (famous San Antonio basketball player) ascending to super-mortal status and slaying dinosaur-sized ravenous dogs, and mad wizards running rampant through Waco.

Come to think of it, this is a Texas I can get behind. Can we make this happen?

Anyway, Erikson keeps this insane contraption running through thousands and thousands of pages, with the operatic pathos plowing full steam through people’s souls, but just enough jokes and sidelong glances to convince me that he is utterly self-aware about the whole thing. Every time I think Erikson’s maxed out the chaos, he finds another dial marked “EPIC” or “AMAZEBALLS” to crank up. In the wrong hands (*cough* Michael Bay *cough*), it would all just be tiresome. With Malazan? Tremendous fun. It’s about time someone tossed out close European analogues and blew everything up. If we can make all of our own rules, why not go crazy? Why not push everything to the logical and narrative limit? Isn’t this why we read fantasy after all? Jose maintains that this is the whole reason the genre exists, and he will fight and die on this hill. We read fantasy for the jaw-dropping moments that turn our brains to jelly, the instant when horizons explode out past anything we’ve dreamed of prior, and the scenes of our wildest imaginings put down on paper. Or at least I do. Named swords and lost princes are cute, but I think it’s my right to demand more.

More in this case is Malazan, and it’s probably something every fantasy grognard should read. It is not however one of those places that any reader would want to visit. Malazanians must breed like rabbits to maintain the population, since the average lifespan in this place is about seventeen minutes. The series might have the highest horrible deaths per capita of anything I’ve read. Yes, yes, Game of Thrones, GRRM killing everyone, I know, I know. My understanding though is that he mostly targets people’s favorite characters. Erikson is more indiscriminate, randomly torching, plaguing, butchering, or magicking entire cities. The body count (and detailed descriptions thereof) may not be to everyone’s liking. That aside, it’s maniacally entertaining stuff. High level to be sure, since the reader is thrown to the wolves with no, “As you know, Bob…” breaks to catch anyone up, but a landmark bit of writing.

I will probably write more about this as I get closer to knocking out the whole ten books. There’s lots to say, especially if I turn the spoiler filter off. I’ll leave it here for now and hope that other readers sound off with comments that spark scintillating conversation.

The Straits of Galahesh

The Straits of Galahesh
Bradley Beaulieu

I’ve been fighting with this post for several days, but it stubbornly resists any kind of hook or angle. I still want to talk about The Straits of Galahesh though, so in the absence of profound or witty concept to hang this post on, I may have to write a straight up book review. Heaven forbid.

I read and reviewed The Winds of Khalakovo some time ago, and named it one of my best reads of 2013. Beaulieu’s unique world fit well with the sympathetic characters and non-stop action; I burned through the book in a couple of days and was immediately ready for more. However, despite the author graciously providing me with ebooks of the next two volumes, one thing or another got in the way and I didn’t start into Book Two until early 2015. Straits took much longer than Winds to complete, something I initially chalked up to changes in my reading habits. Thinking more and poking around other reactions, I’ve decided that it wasn’t just me. Straits is a deeper, more complex book that demands more effort than the first. It takes longer to set up, longer to get into, and longer to pay off, while dealing with the dreaded Middle Book Syndrome.

While Winds was big on swashbuckling in a comparatively small geographic and chronological area, Straits takes the time to expand the story both further into Beaulieu’s world and deeper into the history of Anuskaya. There are still plenty of swashes to buckle this time around, but in more kingdoms (Istanbul analog!) and with more and better bad guys. Anuskaya, with its windships and islands in the sky, is even more beguiling than in Winds. Beaulieu has created one of my favorite fantasy worlds here, improving it vastly by introducing new places. I didn’t think it would get much better after the first book, but the author surprised me. Yes, this remains the ever popular Seek and Slay the Evil Wizard storyline, but now we have the philosophical underpinnings to his dastardly plot! On the whole, the series benefits from the broader view. There is a trade-off as Beaulieu has to spend a substantial pagecount in the setup, but once things finally get rolling the momentum is undeniable.

It’s hard to assess the plot and write the sort of convoluted, analytical stuff that Two Dudes normally presents without first seeing where everything ends up in Book Three. Eye rolling and accusations of having entirely too much spare time will have to wait. The wait shouldn’t be too long though, since I am eager to wrap this up and find out what happens. The world might literally end, if the author is feeling so inclined, and the body count is just high enough that favorite characters may have to make the ultimate sacrifice to stop the evil, if vaguely well-intentioned, Evil Wizard from unleashing a hellish nirvana on everyone. True love will likely prevail however, just because it always does. That said, anyone who liked the first book will find no reason to skip the second. My expectations for the third are high.

The Goblin Emperor

The Goblin Emperor
Katherine Addison

I haven’t written a book review in quite some time, so Katherine Addison’s newest seems a good place to pick back up. I didn’t initially plan on reading this, as everything about it screams “tween book,” from the name to the cute cover. The Goblin Emperor has steadily drawn good reviews though, so I decided to check it out. I”m glad that I did – this is a lovely, charming book. It’s hopeful, positive, complex, and beautifully written. In other words, Mom, since I know you’re reading this, go get The Goblin Emperor from the library. I think it’s what you’ve been looking for.

The plot has been well-covered elsewhere, so I will be brief. Maia, our erstwhile hero, is the half-elven, half-goblin son of the elven emperor, banished to a remote outpost and mostly forgotten. Within a paragraph or two however, the emperor and all his heirs are killed in an airship crash, leaving Maia next in line for the throne. Maia is dragged back to the palace, crowned, and forced to learn his way around a court that never cared much about him or expects even the barest hint of competence from him. This being the happy tale that it is, Maia slowly grows into his role, finds his way around the stupendously detailed and intricately described elven kingdom, and engages in mild hijinks. Addison gives us many fascinating characters along the way, with their factions, conspiracies, friendships, and pasts. It seems like a setup for adolescent Life Lessons, but is actually much more. The worldbuilding is first rate, the politics have depth, and the author doesn’t shy away from many realities of imperial rule. Bad things happen to some people, but never gratuitously or gleefully, and the vibe remains hopeful throughout.

Let me just mention a few expectations I had for the book that were happily betrayed. Biggest of all is the deceiving YA veneer, a quick way to put me off. (Nothing wrong with YA, I just have no patience for reading about children while I spend so much time worrying about my own.) Maia is eighteen and coming into adulthood here, but his late adolescence is mercifully not the focus. In fact, there are plenty of situations and issues that I think would go over many teens’ heads, particularly the politics and culture of Maya’s kingdom, which can be dense and unforgiving at times. The book is rightfully not marketed at youth, title and cover art notwithstanding. Semi-related to this is romance. No love triangles to deal with, minimal angst caused by the opposite gender, no moon-faced longing, and a coldly realistic portrayal of royal marriage. (Again, nothing wrong with romance, I simply have no desire to deal with anyone else’s broken heart. I’m long since done with all that falling in love crap.) Finally, and perhaps most surprising, this isn’t a tale about racism. Everything is primed for an allegory of the mixed ethnicity child gaining everyone’s grudging acceptance as we all learn a bit more about tolerance, but the train veers off these tracks quickly and decisively. Maia’s goblin blood is an issue to be sure, but not in any way that we might expect. Elves and goblins are roughly equals in this world, with their own kingdoms and cultures, but a relationship that seems to be generally free of hierarchy. What could have been a story about racial subjugation, immigration, or some other contemporary problem instead portrays a relationship roughly as fraught as the modern day English and French. My feelings about diversity in SF are much more positive than romance or teen-agers, but I still enjoyed the gentle subversion of my predictions.

On the other hand, Addison digs at some fascinating questions with what the book really is. David Brin is on record multiple times with his opinion that we humans somehow crave feudalism, that something in our lizard brains secretly loves kings and emperors. I am generally skeptical of this, but then I look around at pop culture and the news. We won’t even start with Disney princesses, but what really kills me is the British royal family. I live in a country that was founded in opposition to hereditary rulers, and yet I see thousands of Americans, many with ancestors who died fighting for (a form of) democracy, getting all weepy over Princess Kate and her stupid weddings and babies. It makes me want to don a tricorn hat, cross the Delaware River in the snow, and put some Hessian mercenaries to the sword while waving the Declaration of Independence in my non-bayonet hand. Maybe Brin is on to something after all.

This digression has a point. I wonder if part of the broad appeal to The Goblin Emperor is the young emperor himself. He is, in a way, the idealized projection of ourselves as a just king. Maia espouses tolerance, gender equality, respect for learning and the sciences, and the good of the realm above self-aggrandizement. He has his flaws, is awkward with pretty women, occasionally crumples under stress, and really just wants a friend, not unlike many of us. He is aware of the inequality, poverty, and suffering in his empire and seems to want to do something about it. I quite like Maia and think he would be someone to admire, were he actually running a neighboring kingdom. Canada, for example.

And yet, while Maia is an Everyman, he is an Everyman born to an emperor. Maia is not the head of state because he is qualified, or because the voice of the people chose him, but instead through the luck of birth and a deeply tragic transportation mishap. Can he really wield supreme executive authority just because some watery tart threw a sword at him? Haven’t we done away with most royalty precisely because Maia is such an aberration? I doubt that Addison wrote this purely to question our views of government, but this is the sort of thing that occupies my brain during descriptions of royal finery or ceremony. I admit to possibly being a weirdo.

This is the scenic route to my conclusion, which is that The Goblin Emperor is utterly charming. There is a set of readers that will no doubt demand more action (flying heads!), more magic (fireballs!), or just more wide screen drama (epic battles!), but they will miss the charms of this relatively quiet book. I hope there is more to the story here, because I cared about the people involved and want to spend more time with them. They felt real, which is more than can be said for far too many stories out there.