Elf Bureaucracy

When reading secondary world fantasy a question I rarely ask is: What language are these people speaking? Most fantasies assume (and there’s nothing wrong with either choice) that everybody in the other world speaks a language just like English, or that the story was translated from some imaginary language. Of the fantasy novels I’ve read, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison–the pen name of Sarah Monette–is among the best at giving the impression that it’s a translation from some another language, and at giving some idea of what that other language is like.

Cover of The Goblin Emperor

The premise is that when the emperor of the elves started feeling embarrassed about his married-to-a-goblin phase he packed his half-goblin son Maia off to the hinterlands in the care of a resentful cousin. Thus, when the entire royal family dies in a blimp-related assassination Maia turns out to be a convenient backup. Maia, whose biggest concern heretofore has been getting through the day without pissing off cousin Setheris, spends the rest of the novel figuring out how this “emperor” business works.

Maia’s language is centered around manners and protocol. A complex system of titles indicates status. Maia uses different forms of address for intimates and acquaintances: The former is indicated by the use of “thee” and the latter by the first person plural, what’s (ironically) known as the “royal we.” You don’t need to understand any of this to follow the story[1]–if you have trouble at first keeping track of all these people and their different titles, that just means you and Maia have something in common. But how these people talk is a window into how they think, and how their society works.[2] It says a lot about Maia’s situation that he uses the intimate form of address hardly at all, and almost always when addressing himself in his head. As emperor, he literally has no intimates.

The fashion in SF is for lots of POV characters. TGE stays in Maia’s head all the way through, which makes him one of the better characters in recent SF: we’re not bouncing around a cast of thousands, so it feels like we have time to get to know him. And because Maia was kept out of the Emperor’s world until now, he knows almost as little of it as we do. We learn his environment with him and this eases us into the novel’s complex worldbuilding. The strict POV is also a structural cue to Maia’s introversion and intellectual bent: Maia lives in his head, and so does the novel. The story’s personality is Maia’s personality.

His personality is different from other contemporary genre heroes. Most pop culture protagonists right now are either face-punchy tough guys or geniuses with no social skills and an excess of snark.[3] Having had my fill of both, I’m now most interested in heroes who solve problems while being decent. Maia is one of those. You get a sense of who he is when he discovers he’s the emperor. He doesn’t ascend to the throne out of ambition, or because he has a Destiny to fulfill. This messenger shows up to take Maia to the capital, and he’s a little panicky but he goes along because he’s agreeable and conscientious. If this guy is telling Maia he’s the emperor now, he has to remember protocol and try his best to live up to his role, because trying his best is just what Maia does.

As Emperor Maia solves problems by building connections with other people. It’s his most vital skill. He has to rely on others often. He’s one of those Louis XIV on-constant-display emperors, so his position limits where he can go and what he can do. And he’s a constitutional monarch, not a dictator, so he can’t order his desires into reality at whim. Maia collects plenty of reliable allies because The Goblin Emperor, like other books I’ve reviewed recently, is optimistic fantasy. Maia’s world is unjust–women and people of Maia’s goblin ancestry are second class citizens, and economic inequality is bad enough to inspire revolutionary assassins. But most people mean well, and the world’s problems are fixable.

Maia is retiring by nature but conscientious enough to see when something needs to be done, and to do it, if it’s within his limits. He has moments of anger and resentment but is self-aware enough to recognize them and realize that anger in an emperor is dangerous. His mix of introversion and determination reminded me of another one of Sarah Monette’s characters–Kyle Murchison Booth, protagonist of the M. R. Jamesian stories in The Bone Key. Although fortunately for Maia he’s living in a fantasy novel, not a horror story.

But Maia’s story begins at the point where the standard epic fantasy clich├ęs end. Fantasies starring would-be monarchs usually leave the coronation to the epilogue, spending their obligatory three volumes on travelogues interspersed with battles. Maia’s job isn’t to secure the throne. He has to figure out what to do once he’s on it. He spends the book negotiating, learning to navigate the bureaucracy, and figuring out the subtler details of elven politics. And it’s more absorbing and suspenseful than 99 percent of those multivolume quests. I wonder again, as I so often do, why so many SF novels lean so hard on action when thought and dialogue are what prose does best.

I’ve seen internet commenters argue that, despite being filled with elves and goblins and wizards and priests casting spells, The Goblin Emperor somehow isn’t actually fantasy. Apparently there’s not enough magic, or what magic exists in the book isn’t sufficiently plot-relevant. Which is stupid. I mean, first of all, The Goblin Emperor is not the kind of fantasy novel that explores every rule of a clockwork-perfect magic system, but that doesn’t mean that magic is absent. Anyone who thinks it doesn’t affect the plot isn’t paying attention, or maybe isn’t even reading carefully enough to recognize the plot. More importantly, as criteria for classifying a novel as fantasy “it’s gotta have wizard people” is asinine. Gormenghast does not have magic. Neither does Swordspoint. Magic is irrelevant to the plot of some Discworld novels–Monstrous Regiment, for instance, might as well take place in a world without it. Nobody questions their fantasy credentials. I’m not sure what’s different about The Goblin Emperor.[4]

Most importantly, The Goblin Emperor could not be set in the real world without burying its concerns under layers of real-world politics. It’s about a person of mixed background and ambiguous respectability thrown into an unexpectedly exalted position and learning to function in it and govern well. Now, you could, for instance, write an alternate history about an Anglo-Indian ruling the British empire instead of Queen Victoria. But that novel would be about India, and the British empire, and their cultures and history and politics. And the audience might have strong feelings about those issues that might overshadow other themes. The Goblin Emperor, by setting its story in an invented world, takes one step back from specific historical concerns. This allows it to focus on a question relevant to many times and places: in a flawed society, how can someone be a decent person in a position of power?

I mentioned that The Goblin Emperor starts where most epic fantasies end, with a new ruler coming to power. Science fiction and fantasy are especially political genres. Interestingly, fantasies about big political changes are more often concerned with what leads up to the change than the consequences, which maybe get a reassuring epilogue. Epic fantasies end in coronations; we never find out whether Aragorn is a competent administrator. Dystopian stories, if they allow their heroes to triumph over the repressive old order, don’t get into what those heroes plan to put in their place. Stories of revolution are about how the heroes get the upper hand, not how they rebuild. Snowpiercer smashes the train and doesn’t concern itself with how the survivors will get along in the freezing cold with the polar bears; Jupiter Ascending has no real idea what its heroine might do after securing her position among the Space Aristocrats.

Pop culture critics have spent gigabytes worrying over Hollywood’s ever-accelerating rebooting of its franchises. Most are fantasies of some kind–superheroes, super-spies, space operas. Every reboot is another chance to retell the hero’s origin. Hollywood loves origin stories, maybe because they match up with the Campbellian “hero’s journey” Hollywood still takes for a prescription. Expand the definition of “power” beyond the political into the personal–physical power, social power, economic power–and you can see how this connects to the last paragraph. Origin stories are about rising to power. We’ve all noticed superhero stories, our dominant film genre, can’t get away from origins. The comic books reboot themselves every couple of years now. Critics of literary SF speculate on why Young Adult novels are popular even among older readers. That fits the pattern, too: YA stories are about characters discovering their personal agency. By contrast, how many SF stories are about old people?

It’s not that no one writes SF about people trying to decently manage the power they have rather than leveling it up–in fact that describes Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, one of The Goblin Emperor’s Hugo co-nominees. But pop culture seems more interested in the process of getting power than in handling it responsibly.

I think this reflects a larger trend. American politicians exist in permanent campaign mode, always looking to the next election, and when they’re on the job many have no clear idea what to do beyond obstructing their colleagues from doing their jobs. Business leaders extract short-term profits while ignoring the long-term health of their businesses, then walk away with generous severance packages. Silicon valley startups base their business models on “disruption,” by which they mean looking for excuses not to follow the rules that apply to their competitors without worrying about what those rules are for. Americans in the 21st century want money and status. They don’t want to think about what they’ll do with it, or the effects of what they do to get it. Our popular culture gives us what we want, or what it thinks we want. So it gives us fewer stories about everyday responsibility, or how we live and work outside of the crises depicted in a Hollywood blockbuster.

Standardized epic fantasies pretend their heroes’ only job is to plant the right asses on the right thrones. But replacing the head of state does not reboot society. Maia is a more thoughtful and just person than the last emperor, but that doesn’t automatically make the system he’s now complicit in less corrupt. He’s going to have to put in a lot of slow, patient work to change it. The lesson of The Goblin Emperor is that diplomacy and administration, the everyday societal maintenance that keeps civilization running and sometimes even improves it, can be just as dramatic as revolution. The Goblin Emperor keeps traditionally “exciting” plots running in the background–a murder investigation, attempted coup, and attempted assassination. But the real climax comes when Maia convinces the ruling council to make their citizens’ lives a bit more convenient by building a bridge. I can’t imagine a climactic battle scene as exciting.


  1. Although, if you care, everything is explained in an appendix. I’d recommend getting a paper copy to facilitate flipping back and forth if you want to consult it.  ↩

  2. This is not an endorsement of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, that language constrains the way people think. Instead, the way people think shapes their language.  ↩

  3. This is why most of the detective novels I read are old. Hercule Poirot could be a fussbudget, but at least he didn’t need a minder to supervise all his interactions with other human beings.  ↩

  4. Well, beyond the fact that it was one of the few works to get a Hugo nomination on its own merits in a year dominated by incompetent pulp fiction nominated by resentful culture warriors.  ↩