I WAS WRONG ABOUT THE GOBLIN EMPEROR, AND THAT’S FANTASTIC

My dear ARTICHOKE,

The Goblin Emperor has been nominated for Best Novel for both the Nebula and the Hugo Awards, and I am so excited!

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Is it going to win either award? Probably not, but I don’t care. My general attitude towards book awards (with a possible exception for the Pulitzer) is to not care, or usually even know, ever. Not the nominees; not the winners; not even when or where or any of that. Frankly, this is an attitude that has done me well. I’m not going to go into any great detail to explain why I feel this way about these awards, other than to say that whenever I’ve deviated from my principle, I’ve usually found myself ripping my hair out in frustration without about fifteen minutes. From what little I haven’t read, it appears that this year in particular, with regards to the Hugo, is an especially good year to not care about book awards.

But in honor of this book and this book alone, I am fucking thrilled. Allow me to explain.

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison [1] was released in April of 2014, just over a year ago, and I bought it on the day it came out. In March, I had happened across the Tor website, where they, crafty bastards that they are, had put the first four chapters online; I read all four, and I was enchanted. As you might imagine, for any book wherein you rush to the bookstore the very moment it’s released, my expectations were very high, and it exceeded those expectations! Which never happens. It never happens to anyone, and it especially never happens to me, now that I’ve become a cynical malcontent.

As you well know (because I bullied you into reading it), The Goblin Emperor is the story of Maia, the youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor of a rather steampunk Elflands. Maia, who is both despised by his father and three half-brothers away from being heir, rather abruptly finds himself on the throne after a wee bit of murder. The story is one of Maia’s attempts to both adjust to and survive the court he is decidedly unprepared for, and of the impact he makes on said court and, by extension, the world.

Upon finishing it, I had two conclusions; first, that this was my new favorite book, which was a unique feeling, because I haven’t been one for championing a single favorite book above all others since I was about eleven (Harry Potter, in case you were curious). Secondly, that no one was going to read this book but me.

I’m not going to claim that I was absolutely confident of the latter, and therefore astonished when I turned out to be proven wrong; I don’t consider myself all that skilled at predicting what will and won’t get traction in the zeitgeist, or what might achieve popularity or notoriety as the case may be. But in the case of The Goblin Emperor, the augurs, if you will, were not especially good.

If Fantasy and Literary were ever married (and surely they were– look at the fantastical elements of the likes of King Arthur legends and Shakespeare and more), it has since been an alarmingly messy divorce, with any number of retroactive denials, disrespect, and quite a few custody battles. The literary fantasy genre is something of the ill-conceived middle child of this divorce, the child neither parent wants and both consider illegitimate. The literary reader can’t stand the dragons and elves and what not, and the fantasy reader can’t stand the lagging lack of plot and your average ultra-introspective character. Or so the sensibility goes. [2]

The Goblin Emperor is, without any equivocation, a fantasy novel. But I bring up this old debate because in order to read and appreciate it, the reader must have a grasp for the literary sensibility for organizing the plot, as well as a deep and preferably nuanced grasp of some of the most traditional (traditional to the point of being cliched) and beloved tropes of the fantasy genre.

To address a few of those qualities…

(A quick parenthetical note before I get started; all of the following examples are taken from Goodreads, where there is 3,000 (!) reviews of TGE, and where I cherry-picked the things I wanted to talk about, whether the reviewer in question was praising or disparaging the book.)

It has no plot.

Geoff

Now, of course TGE has a plot… kind of. But certainly not the kind of plot that Geoff mentions here. It has what I’m going to call the “Anne of Green Gables” plot; a misfit orphan is, by some sort of misunderstanding [3], sent to a world that is by no means prepared for, nor desirous of, said orphan, a world which our orphan ultimately changes, by the power of his or her good-heartedness. [4]

By the necessity of what it is, this is the kind of plot that is more a series of events and a portrait of development, of both our main character and the world in question, than a plot in the usual sense of a fantasy book, wherein there is an objective to be achieved (eg, ring into volcano, heir onto throne, etc) and characters, events, locations, etc., either help move the plot along or create obstacles along the way. The best example of a master of the fantasy genre plot is the superb Diana Wynne Jones who, in many of her books, doesn’t waste so much as a single extraneous word.

The language.

crowinator

You’re going to need to have, or be willing to learn, at least a passing understanding of the differences between the informal thee and the formal you, and the informal I and the formal we. [5] This is not to say that Addison doesn’t hold the reader’s hand, or neglects to give a few helpful pointers; by all means, she does. But the reader is still going to have to be willing to read carefully, and with precision. They’re going to have to meet the author halfway, so to speak, and they’re not going to be able to check their brain at the door. Every time any character uses thee where protocol dictates that they should use you is deeply significant, and it’s an enormously rewarding read, if you’re keeping up. I don’t think it’s especially hard to follow, but it’s not exactly pandering to the lowest common denominator, either. Furthermore, my suspicion is that most people think that thee/thou is actually more formal than you, and that the royal we is reserved for the usage by the royalty in question. So, the reader might find his or herself learning some archaic grammar, in order to best read this book.

The world-building.

xkcd

Alex Rista again

I’m sympathetic to the complaint that fantasy novels have a decided tendency to make up as many fancy and frequently unnecessary new words as per the delight of the author, thereby leaving the reader bewildered with every new page; but I have very little patience for the there was too much world-building complaint.

World-building is a fucking skill, an art within the greater art of writing, and a skill that takes craft, study, attention-to-detail, and a great deal more imagination than most of us critics will ever appreciate. I understand that when it’s not done especially well, or with much care or nuance, or when the details of the world aren’t conveyed with grace and careful discretion, it can be something of a slog to read. But to write off  the entirety of the craft as a tool to be used for the purpose of the plot and no more frequently than that, would be like… to illegitimize the use of a single instrument in the composition of music. You’ve heard a piece of music with the piano badly played, I assume; but that didn’t lead you to decide that the piano should only be used insofar as to support the vocal component.

Simply put, there are some books that you read, in no small part, for the world-building, not in spite of it, and The Goblin Emperor is absolutely such a book.

Tadiana

That being said, I just finished reading TGE for the third time in less than a year, with numerous partial reads in between, and I was still consulting the glossary of names, places, and terminology in the back of the book. I don’t consider this a flaw; the fact that Addison uses the created word ulimeire where she could have used temple or shrine, the fact that she names significant rooms, jewels, and other inanimate objects, the fact that the familial and titular language has a certain spiralling complexity to it, all serve to make the world feel a little more lived in, a little more unique, as well as signalling emphasis for the reader. It further serves to communicate Addison’s own love of language (etymology, language, and words, are all discussed by the characters of the book, or contemplated in Maia’s head), which does imply that perhaps some of these complexities aren’t extant merely to help the reader, but simply because Addison was enjoying writing her book. [6]

The other reason I thought TGE was going to have some difficulty collecting fame and fortune is that it’s simply a difficult sell. If you go perusing through the reviews, most of those reviews are overwhelmingly positive, but the #1 selling point most frequently mentioned, the thing reviewers marvel over, is how much of a good person, how kind and how relatable, the main character is.

sherwood smith

Alex Rista

hanne

Once you’ve read the book, this makes a great deal of sense, but I imagine it isn’t the sort of thing that really catches the eye of the uninitiated and pulls them in. The other thing reviewers can usually be counted on to mention is the beauty and excellence of the writing; but we expect good writing, in all of our books as a basic standard (even if we don’t necessarily always have our expectations fulfilled). There’s no intriguing premise, no promised exciting and unforeseen twist, and no prior repute or esteem that came with the name Addison.

I work in publishing. I’ve been told that Good writing will out, in the hopeful sense that the best writing, the best books and short stories, will rise above their flawed peers by virtue of the interest and devotion of their discerning readers (admittedly, I was told this truism in the context of evaluating the slush pile, so there is that). This book becoming nominated for both the Nebula and the Hugo is the first time I can think of that actually happening (except for in regards to the aforementioned slush pile; but believe me when I say that what qualifies as good writing as compared to all the rest is a very low standard when you’re going through submissions).

In conclusion, Artichoke, I don’t actually care if The Goblin Emperor wins its awards, but I’m very happy for the acclaim it has received thus far. I’m happy about what that might say about the direction of the future of the genre of fantasy.

More about the actual contents of the book next time.

Much love,

ONION

onion

O&A on Tumblr! O&A on WordPress!

[1] I do realize that Katherine Addison is Sarah Monette, but I don’t call Mark Twain Samuel Clemens, so.

[2] I am of the opinion that the bitter rivalry between Fantasy and Literary, specifically the rivalry wherein works of the fantasy genre can’t get no respect from the high minded folks of literature, is coming to an end in our modern times. My observation of the trends has been a move, with younger generations, away from the rigid guidelines of genre and not-genre, and considerably less of a tolerance for people who refuse to partake in genre fiction. In an age when everyone watches Batman movies and discusses them seriously, and when anyone who says he hasn’t read Harry Potter isn’t so much showcasing his high-mindedness as he is making himself into an obstacle in the flow of conversation… I just don’t think the Fantasy v. Literary debate is destined to flourish especially well. But then again, the entire point of this letter is commenting on how wrong I was about the popularity of this one book, so bear that in mind.

[3] The misunderstanding in this case being a whole lot of murder.

[4] In a blog post about the writing of Mary Sues, Sarah Monette wrote the following,

“Now, it’s easy to see why characters like this are appealing, especially if you’re a teenager. […] They pander to the part of us that knows we are Special and misunderstood, and hold out hope that we will eventually, after suitable perils and suffering (which we endure bravely and from which we emerge possibly bloody but definitely unbowed), find a community or a person who will understand us and love us for what we are. Which is what we all hope for, and actually I don’t have any problem with that as a plot arc. [added in footnote:] Actually, I think that’s one of the best plot arcs there is.”

[5] And this blog post by no means qualifies as a remedial course, because “the informal thee” is definitely not the actual name of that tense.

[6] A side note to Artichoke: You’re totally down with the idea of authors stumbling across our blog and reading these letters, which I find completely baffling, because this possibility deeply freaks me out. Like, what if Sarah Monette finds this, and then contacts me to say, “You’re completely off your gourd, I don’t love language at all”. You have no idea how much this thought alarms me.  [Edited To Add: Since reading, Artichoke has taken pains to inform me that what I assumed was a blase attitude was not nearly so nonchalant; furthermore, he pointed me to this amusing anecdote, so now the idea of Sarah Monette finding this weird little blog about two vegetables discussing books and movies is alarming me even more than it was before. Thanks, Artichoke!]

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About onionandartichoke

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a pair of vegetables in possession of a good quantity of opinions must be in want of a blog. Onion and Artichoke: Purveyors of Fine Literary Reviews, Discussions of Modern Life, and Only Infrequent Eviscerations. (With occasional contributions from Messrs. Aubergine, Leek, and Zucchini.) ------------- We are two college friends in our twenties, who live in the same city and (as of April 2014) have the good luck of working in the same office too. Onion runs the Tumblr, and Artichoke runs the WordPress. Onion is media-savvy; Artichoke mispronounces words on the regular. Onion is full of grace; Artichoke listens to Ace of Base. Onion is a bulb; Artichoke is a thistle. We hope this has been a very informative reading experience. Sincerely, ONION and ARTICHOKE
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