For someone who loves fantasy, I don’t read a lot of fantasy. Perhaps Tolkien spoiled me. Perhaps I don’t look hard enough. Perhaps my fandom is taudry. But I have discovered a very unusual and challenging book, and it starts with hopepunk.
A friend of mine, who knows a great deal about a great deal of everything, lobbed the phrase hopepunk my way recently. I was not familiar with this motif and, firmly believing the world needs fewer and not more micro-genres, would have simply lobbed it back from whence it came. But when this same friend explained the term as something like anti-authoritarian kindness, I was intrigued. Kindness that flies in the face of the terrible, an inversion of grimdark, sounded like the kind of thing I could use in these fatiguing times. This naturally led to the Groogle and a TOR article on the idea of hopepunk and one exemplary novel, that being The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.
I began the book with an intense amount of fervor, that same blast one feels on Christmas Morning maybe, the gust of which pushed me past the introduction and through the first few chapters with delight. Once the Emperor takes his throne, though, the reader crashes into the porcelain wall along with Maia (the lead character). Court life is a drag. But I persisted, lagging in my enthusiasm only slightly.
The work of worldbuilding done here is staggering. Excepting the niceties of court life as a generality understood by most who have read high fantasy and taken at least one history course, the culture of the court, the naming and titular grammar, the function of the government, and all the rest are impeccably executed. Sure, a body like me with stunted short-term memory is lost among all the names and titles (each character has at least two), but even skimming across the surface as such is enough to appreciate the depth below, especially as a writer. Towards the end, for example, a whole scene is dedicated to a character unnecessarily petitioning the Emperor to become a Witness, a sort of legal entity somewhere between an attorney and an investigator. It seems only to exist (1) to bring some closure to the character and (2) because the author sees it an essentially part of the world. And, perhaps, (3) to set up the sequel.
I cannot imagine the editing process for this book, Lor’ bless them.
And yet, reaching the back nine of The Goblin Emperor, I felt myself beginning to grasp some of verbage naturally. Affixes and grammatical genders and titles and familial houses and proper names started to separate themselves and become apparent simply by virtue of the consistency and integrity of the system in use. It did not, and needed not, become a hindrance to the progression of the story.
So the rest of the book was an enjoyable sail through the Ethuveraz (its setting’s main nation, that of the elves). For much of the book nothing incredible happens. There are no melon-bending twists early on; we go along with Maia over the course of his early reign and wince along with him. There is no significance.
Significance is the thing, traditionally, when I approach a book. So when the silver chimes of depth fail to ring, or if I can’t hear them straightaway, I often skip books or put them down. This is to my detriment. For there are so many books to read that are simply well-crafted works, enjoyable at any time. They don’t have to be “hard” or “important,” they can simply be good stories and that itself is important.
But, significant or not, twists do arrive in The Goblin Emperor and, owing to the strength of the previously calm narrative, they hit hard. I’m desperately trying to avoid spoilers here, so I shall move on and keep things brief.
What intrigued me about the book from the jump was the promise that Maia, in true hopepunk fashion, kept his integrity. His crown, moreso than the braids and gems and the Ethuverazhid mura, is overwhelming kindness in the face of a cold and conniving system. He is not perfect. He is faced with despair and rage and shame regularly over the course of his odd journey into empery, but it never gets the better of him. If anything these mental storms solidify his composure, even upon his learning that the reason for his ascension was, essentially, his insignificance.
And it’s just such a damned nice book! Everything (again, avoiding spoilers) seems to work out in the end. The grimdarks, the antiheroes, the subverters of expectations ought to all be put on notice, for it would appear their services aren’t as necessary as we once thought.