Appreciation: Katherine Addison’s emotional precision in The Goblin Emperor

With her nuanced, lovely portrayal of a reluctant half-goblin heir assuming the throne in The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison proves her ability to write with emotional precision.

Cover of The Goblin Emperor by Katherine AddisonNow that I have read it, the rave reviews of The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) seem less like hype and more like documentation. The novel is beguiling in large part because it features such a guileless main character in Maia, the exiled goblin-elf half-breed heir who assumes the throne of Ethuveraz when his emperor father and before-him-in-succession brothers die in an airship disaster. Maia is naive, ill-equipped to navigate the formalities, prejudices and machinations of the Untheileneise Court. But he is not without his own resources, in particular, his sincerity and intelligence, which are both strengths and weaknesses in the hot-house of imperial pageantry and politics.

Addison has to tread carefully here. It would be easy to make Maia too emotionally intelligent or too charismatic or too adolescent and thus drain out the tension in the plot. That she succeeds is because of emotional precision of her prose. By that, I don’t mean that Maia spends pages and pages in angst-ridden internal monologue. Rather Addison’s genius is in always reaching for just the right moment, detail, word, reaction and knowing when to go deeper into what Maia is feeling and when not to. I’m sure there are readers who will find this calibration off, wanting either much more or none at all. But count me among those who think she succeeds beautifully.

This example is less meaningful without prolonged exposure to the layers of character and narrative Addison builds in the book. But it’s one that I can share that doesn’t spoil the plot at all:

Ulis was a cold god, a god of night and shadows and dust. His love was found in emptiness, his kindness in silence. And that was what Maia needed. Silence, coldness, kindness. He focused his thoughts carefully on the familiar iconography, the image of Ulis’s open hands, the god of letting go was surely the god who would listen to an unwilling emperor. (302)

The progression of those three adjectives in that sentence fragment are perfect — fitting but also surprising, worldbuilding in the service of emotional precision. The Goblin Emperor is filled with such moments.

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