Provenance

Ingray Aughskold is an insecure, needy kid. Well, not a kid, exactly. She’s in her twenties, with a good job on her home planet Hwae, but her politically powerful mother has encouraged competition between her foster children: Danach, the son of an ambitious but less well-connected family, and Ingray, a charity case with no biological family to fall back on if her foster mother rejects her. Ingray believes their mother favours Danach as her heir to carry on the family name and traditions, so she makes a wild gamble to win their mother’s approval: she frees a convicted thief from prison to help her recover the set of priceless vestiges (artefacts or mementos) he is reputed to have stolen. Her plans go awry right from the start, and she is caught up in a deepening morass of forgeries, false identifies, culture clashes, political manoeuvrings, and murder.

The conflicts and stakes start small in Provenance, by Anne Leckie. In the opening chapters, Ingray is afraid of personal embarrassment in her rivalry with Danach, but the story soon unfolds into a series of multi-level interconnected conflicts with increasingly higher stakes: rivalries among Hwae’s power families for local political control, rivalries among several human societies in neighbouring systems, with the Hwae’s identity and autonomy at risk, and interspecies frictions threatening the peace established by interstellar treaty among the Significant Species—human and the alien Geck, Rrrrr, and Presger.

Despite the scope of the problems involved, the focus stays on familial tensions. An inconsequential romance could have been dropped with no damage to the story. Except for the climactic hostage situation, the drama is really in Ingray’s relationship with Danach, and in several parent/child relationships—hers, the freed prisoner’s, and one involving the alien Geck.

The story also delves into questions of personal and national identity through the accumulation of storied objects (like the Liberty Bell) or founding documents (like the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Waitangi, or the Magna Carta). Do the objects themselves have intrinsic value, or is the value in the ideas they represent and memories they trigger? In this story, when some of those objects are determined to be forgeries, the repercussions are life-changing.

This is a stand-alone novel*, but if you are familiar with Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, you will already have noticed that this is set in the same universe. It starts after the end of that trilogy (the Geck ambassador is on her way to the recently-called Conclave) but takes place in an independent human society outside of Radchaii space, with unrelated characters. Provenance is not as compelling a read as Ancillary Justice, and Ingray is not as interesting a character as Breq. If you understand and accept that, it’s still a fun read with interesting world-building and a complex plot.

Provenance does have a few problems. The biggest one is the inconsistencies in the point-of-view character, Ingray. She never quite jells as a real person. For someone who supposedly has been trained as a political operative from a young age, she seems incredibly naive at times. We’re told she can maintain a smile under the most trying circumstances, but she bursts into tears regularly. We’re also told she’s great at planning, but we’re never shown that. The situation she’s in at the beginning involves a serious lack of planning. She does prove resourceful in later situations, but they all look to me like she’s winging it. Which, I admit, I’m not good at. I am good at planning. I wouldn’t call what Ingray does, “planning.”

The book also gets off to a rather slow start. The first few chapters are mostly just conversations providing backstory, setup, and world-building. It doesn’t really take off until Ingray is home, interacting with Danach and getting whiplash from the freed prisoner’s lies, misdirections, and retractions.

The heavy use of gender-neutral pronouns also bothered me more than the exclusive use of she in Ancillary Justice did. They were mixed in freely with gender-specific pronouns; Ingray was she, Danach was he, and random other people were he, she, or e. I have no idea how someone in that society would know which one to use for a random individual, and that annoyed me a bit. (Does that make me a reactionary? I’m quite willing to use whatever pronoun an individual wants, but you can’t tell just by looking.)


*If you haven’t read the Imperial Radch trilogy, this is all you need to know:

  1. Other human societies are afraid of the militaristic, expansionist Radch.
  2. Humans and other aliens are afraid of the inscrutable alien Presger.
  3. The Significant Species Treaty requires non-interference between species, and everyone takes it seriously. Nobody wants to make the Presger angry (see #2).
Posted in Space Opera | Leave a comment

Moo

I first read Jane Smiley’s Moo years ago, but on randomly picking it off my shelf recently, found it still an enjoyable story. Moo is a humorous look at life in an agricultural university in the American Midwest, part soap opera, part satire. Covering the 1989-90 academic year, some details are a bit dated, but the personality clashes and political wrangling are surely still relevant. The characters will be recognisable to anyone who has ever had a brush with higher education. Recognisable enough, that when the book was published in 1995, readers at many different institutions claimed it was about their school.

This is a character-based, situation-driven novel, and the cast of characters is rather large, including faculty, students, staff, and some members of the surrounding community, with overlapping and intersecting threads. The characters are not all equally interesting, but among the more entertaining are:

  • Chairman X, Marxist head of the Horticulture department, who wants to kill the dean and who lives with Lady X (a.k.a. Beth), the woman everyone—including their four children—assumes is his wife,
  • Mrs Walker, the admin, who knows where the bodies are buried, and who actually runs the place,
  • Cecelia Sanchez, assistant professor recently arrived from Los Angeles, and who feels out of place in a sea of lily-white faces,
  • Loren Stroop, a local eccentric farmer trying to interest the university in the machine he invented and believes will revolutionise farming, and
  • Bob Carlson, a lonely sophomore who works for the University taking care of the hog at the centre of an experiment to see how big a hog will grow if left alone to eat as much as it wants.

That hog, Earl Butz (named after Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture whose policies pushed the United States towards large-scale corporate farming) is a major character in his own right. This is how Smiley describes him:

Earl’s business was eating, only eating, and forever eating… Earl Butz was a good worker, who applied himself to his assigned task with both will and enjoyment… At Christmas, Bob had purchased some large, sturdy red toys…They had been Earl Butz’ first toys, and he played with them when he could fit the time into his work schedule.

There is a list of the characters here. I wish I had had that the first time I read it; I sometimes found myself flipping backwards, thinking Helen, now which one was she, and who is she sleeping with?

The main plot, such as it is, is about funding. The governor threatens budget cuts; the administration scrambles to find additional funding from corporate sponsors. Belt tightening ripples through the system, triggering infighting and endangering some already precarious balancing acts. The novel also explores tensions within the university over what, exactly, it purports to be, as faculty yearning towards the more prestigious Ivy League schools threaten to drag the university away from its locally-relevant, vocational-education roots.

Moo is funny but warm, leaning more towards situational comedy and small tragedies than biting satire, although there is that, too. Don’t expect a riveting page-turner; approach it as a leisurely and Dickensian slice of life in academia. Some threads do follow bizarre, delusional, or abrasive characters, but most of them  are fairly ordinary, relatable people. Their stories are told with streaks of empathy and melancholy woven in.

Audience: anyone who has ever been through an institution of higher education.

Posted in Modern literary fiction | Leave a comment

Longitude

On a ship at sea, out of sight of land, how do you know where you are? These days it’s easy: check your GPS device and it will tell you, to within a few meters. But before the technological leaps of electronics and satellites, how would you have known?

Finding out where you are relative to the equator—your latitude, or distance north or south—is straightforward, just a matter of using the angle of the sun or prominent stars. Mariners have been sailing by the stars for millennia; sextants and applied math increased the accuracy without changing the basic model.

Figuring out where you are east or west—your longitude—is much harder. To start with, east or west relative to what? For calculating latitude, there’s no debate about where the equator is: it’s firmly established by the motion of the earth relative to the sun. There’s no such celestial marker for longitude. Any line used as a starting point is an arbitrary decision. And with no celestial markers, how do you know how far you are from that arbitrary starting point?

The key is to be able to tell time accurately. As Dava Sobel explains,

To learn one’s longitude at sea, one needs to know what time it is aboard ship and also the time at […] another place of known longitude—at that very same moment. The two clock times enable the navigator to convert the hour difference into a geographical separation. Since the Earth takes twenty-four hours to complete one full revolution of three hundred sixty degrees, one hour marks one twenty-fourth of a spin, or fifteen degrees. And so each hour’s time difference between the ship and the starting point marks a progress of fifteen degrees of longitude to the east or west.

Before the invention of accurate clocks, it was impossible to tell how the local time differed from the home port’s time. On the night of 22 October 1707, the admiral of an English fleet carrying more than two thousand men believed his ships were safely out at sea, clear of any coastal hazards. They ran aground on the Scilly Isles, southwest of Cornwall. There were only two survivors. Other similar maritime disasters happened with appalling frequency, especially with the expansion of global trade in the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1714, the British Parliament passed the Longitude Act, promising 20,000—an enormous sum in those days—to anyone who could solve the longitude problem.

Sobel’s book, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, is a short (less than 200 pages) account of the longitude problem, the various attempts to tell time at sea, and the British clockmaker, John Harrison, who built the world’s first true precision timepiece. Harrison’s life and inventions take centre stage, but his work is described within the context of other competing efforts, ranging from ridiculous but entertaining crackpot ideas to abstruse but highly-regarded astronomical calculations. At the time, the cognoscenti expected an astronomically-based solution to win the prize. Harrison was not the first to imagine a clock-based solution—Sir Isaac Newton, for one, wrote about the idea—but most considered reliability at sea too difficult to achieve, given the problems of constant motion and fluctuating temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure.

Harrison began working on the problem sometime in the 1720s. After decades of work and several prototypes of increasing complexity, he made the technological leap resulting in a pocket watch that, in 1762, lost only five seconds on an eighty-one-day voyage.

Harrison’s work was undoubtedly innovative, but he was not an articulate man. Between his rivals’ political manoeuvring and his own inability to explain how his timepiece worked—and what good was it to the British government if it couldn’t be replicated so all the British navy and commercial navigators could use it?—he had to wait far longer than he should have for the recognition he was due. His sea-clocks are marvels. Nearly two and a half centuries later, they are still in working condition and on display in the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England (or were, pre Covid-19).

Longitude, the book, is a lightweight read, part biography/history and part science writing. It is aimed at the general reader, no specialised knowledge needed. The subtitle may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the tale of the impacts of politics, personalities, snobbery, and greed on scientific advance and technological innovation is an intriguing one. The only complaint I had was that diagrams of the clocks’ internals would have helped in understanding them, but my copy is from when the book was first published (1995). Apparently there is a more recent illustrated version that fixes that lack, but there are also illustrations in Wikipedia, including animations in the article on escapements.

Audience: anyone interested in maritime history or the history of science and technology.

Posted in History (non-fiction), Science (non-fiction) | Leave a comment

Taking Care of My Extended Family

When I started this blog, I meant for it to be non-political. Advice I’ve read said don’t antagonise potential readers. That seems like good sense, and I’m not by nature confrontational. But now… Some things are just too important to keep silent about.

I realise the news media often give a distorted and overblown picture of calamity piled on calamity. I realise, too, that living far away in New Zealand, I no longer have a good sense of what living in the United States feels like on a day-to-day basis. But I also know that many of us white, middle-class professionals have the option of overlooking the crap that life dishes out regularly to the less privileged, and when a healthy adult male is fearful of walking around his own neighbourhood in broad daylight, something is wrong.

I look at the news coming out of the U.S. these days, and it makes me heartsick.

I see ordinary people being murdered, arrested, or threatened simply for the colour of their skin. I’ve watched the videos: George Floyd begging for his life, Ahmaud Abery being murdered in cold blood, the white woman in Central Park threatening a black bird watcher and lying to the police about him. Dear God, they are appalling. Anyone who still believes there is no endemic racism in the U.S. hasn’t been paying attention. One of the core principles of my religion is respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Black lives matter. Period. And if you answer with “All lives matter,” go read Animal Farm before bothering me again. All lives are equal, but apparently some are more equal than others.

I see fake commandos taking advantage of white privilege to intimidate anyone who disagrees with them, and to make a mockery of the brave men and women in the military who put their lives on the line to protect home and country. True patriots defend everyone’s rights, and no individual has the right to disregard everyone around them. Rights come with responsibilities, including the civic duty to not interfere with someone else’s right to life. I have a 90-year-old dad with respiratory problems, friends with diabetes or compromised immune systems, a relative with cystic fibrosis, and a stepdaughter and step-son-in-law in the medical profession. Put on a mask and keep your damned germs to yourself so they have a fighting chance. It’s the only honourable thing to do.

I see Orwellian gaslighting trying to convince the American public that lies are truth, that the rule of law doesn’t matter if you have enough money, and that responsible journalists and career civil servants are a greater menace than foreign oligarchs and their disruptive agents.

I could go on, but I’m getting more wound up as I go, and I need to calm down so I’m functional at my day job on Monday morning. Go take care of your own whānau/mishpocha/extended family.

Posted in A Writer's Life | Leave a comment

The Essex Serpent

Early in 1893, new widow Cora Seaborne escapes from London for a quieter life on the Essex shore. She isn’t grieving; her marriage was not a happy one. She is instead enjoying her new freedom to do as she pleases, tramping for miles or digging in the mud for fossils. While there, she hears stories about the Essex Serpent, a supposedly dragon-like winged creature that frightened the local peasantry in the mid-17th century. Rumours suggest that the serpent has returned and is responsible for a string of recent misfortunes: a drowning, a disappearance, etc. Cora, a firm believer in rationality and scientific advancement, is intrigued by the stories. When the natural world still throws up oddities like giant squid, who knows what might be lurking in the hidden reaches of an English estuary?

In the nearby village of Aldwinter, Reverend Will Ransome also hears the rumours, but he is not amused. Better educated than the members of his flock, he rejects the rumours as superstitious nonsense, and grows frustrated as Aldwinter’s inhabitants become increasingly uneasy.

When Cora and Will meet, sparks fly. She berates him for his faith; he questions her science that denies the grandeur of God. Despite their differences in outlook, they have much in common intellectually, and delight in arguing with each other. Cora quickly becomes close friends with Will and his wife Stella. She rents a house in Aldwinter, dividing her time between roaming the countryside and engaging in long discussions with Will under Stella’s benevolent eye.

But not all is well in this quiet corner of Essex. Cora has other devotees who don’t approve of her obsession with Will. Relationships rarely stay static—At least not in novels, or what’s the point?—and some things started in innocence and with good intentions don’t always stay that way. And there’s the serpent lurking in the shadows. As the year turns from spring to summer, a deepening sense of dread creeps over Aldwinter.

Despite the title, The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is not about the serpent. There is something out there, hidden among the shifting sandbars and tidal mud, but it mainly serves as an ominous backdrop for the very human passions of the two main characters and their intersecting circles of family and friends. The book has touches of the gothic novel, but both the horror and drama are muted. It is much more about friendship and love, their limits and manifestations: requited and not, straight and not, acknowledged or repressed.

It is also about the tension between faith and rationality, without being a diatribe on either side. Some of the science is taken more on faith than understanding, and it’s the clergyman who is more sceptical about the existence of some sort of living fossil. There are other tangential concerns, addressed in subplots among the supporting characters, reminding us that these 19th-century people are not very different from us: societal failures in treatment of the poor, medical miracles that still leave the sufferer in wretched condition, and uneasiness towards unconventional women.

This is a beautifully-written historical novel, dense and atmospheric, with a leisurely, old-fashioned pace. It is more about the journey than the destination, and the changes to the characters involve subtle shifts rather than big, dramatic moments. It does have a few problems. Stella’s tolerance stretches credulity, and Martha, Cora’s companion/son’s nanny, is irritating. At times the subplots take over and bog things down, and the overlapping love stories felt repetitive and not all equally believable. Despite that, it’s a lovely story. It doesn’t have a conventional happy ending, but the end is still satisfying, because it is a more faithful extension of the characters we’ve come to know.

Posted in Historical Fiction | Leave a comment

Short Takes on a Trio by New Zealand Authors

Aftershocks (Earthcore Book 3) by Grace Bridges

Aftershocks is a fine addition to the Earthcore series, with a more interesting conflict than the earlier books (RotoVegas and Volcano City). Anira Fraser—the leader of the Earthcore team, when her mind isn’t befogged from being away from her guardian taniwha’s hot springs—goes to Picton with Tiger McRae for a high-school track competition, and nearly starts a war. Anira and the Earthcore team are caught in a dilemma: how can they use their taniwha-bestowed superpowers to ease the friction between the territorial taniwha of New Zealand’s North and South Islands when it was their gifts that triggered the rising tensions?

Audience: teens mainly, but a fun, light read for anyone.


Torn
by Mary Brock Jones

The planet Arcadia is facing ecological disaster because two competing wealthy, greedy families have driven their ecosystems out of balance. Their eco-engineer children have to work against their families’ wishes to put things right. This story can be read as a timely sci-fi parable on the ecological catastrophes facing our own planet, or it can be read for the romance in a sci-fi setting. The romance between the two engineers didn’t really work for me, at least not in the first half, but it got better in the second, when they had more real reasons for protecting each other. The political machinations had some problems, too, but the world-building—in terms of the physicality of the planet Arcadia—was excellent.

Audience: ecologically minded science fiction fans who enjoy romance, too, or romance readers with a sci-fi bent.

The Silver Path by Caitlin Spice

The dozen or so stories in this collection are fairy tales, but not the sanitised happily-ever-after variety. Despite the urban settings with modern conveniences like cell phones and air travel, these are the kinds of stories adults whispered to each other while huddled around the fire, in the days before there were electric lights to drive away the darkness and nameless things howled outside the triple-bolted door. The fae here are glamorous, cold, cruel, and not to be trifled with. The stories are beautifully written, splendidly illustrated, and disturbing, full of loss, regret, guilt, obsession, and terror.

Note that the ebook is only available (as far as I know) from lulu.com.

Audience: Adults and older teens who enjoy fairy tales and horror.

Posted in Fantasy, Kiwi author | Leave a comment

NZ Writers Read

Did you know that the New Zealand Society of Authors has its own youtube channel featuring New Zealand writers reading excerpts from their works? What a great way to sample a variety of styles and voices in a time when physical book launches and signings are out of the question.

I have contributed videos of me reading from The Locksmith (the first book in the Reforging series) and The Blacksmith (the third and currently the latest in the series). Do take a look at them and the videos by the other authors. I hope you will find something there you enjoy.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Deltora Quest

Most of the children’s books I’ve blogged about are ones I read to my daughter. The Deltora Quest series, by Australian author Emily Rodda, is an outlier. My daughter discovered it for herself and read the entire series as a pre-teen. I didn’t read it until years later, when I discovered she was annoyed with me for never having paid attention to her favourite. So when I did sit down to read it, I was primed to expect great things…and was rather taken aback by the less than stellar writing in the early books. But I kept reading, the writing improved, and by the end I, too, had gotten caught up in the story. This fantasy series is—pun intended—a small gem, and a fine gateway for introducing young readers to the fantasy genre.

My daughter enthused over the puzzles and problem solving. There are also vivid descriptions of the land and inhabitants of Deltora, plot twists and cliffhangers galore, and I particularly like the emphasis on teamwork. The three main characters frequently disagree, and don’t always handle their disagreements well, but the challenges can’t be overcome alone. They support each other when things get tight, and don’t hold grudges afterwards over bad choices.

The series was originally published between 2000 and 2002 in eight separate chapter books. It’s now available (and cheaper) as eight parts in one hefty binding, a little over 700 pages.

In the first part, The Forests of Silence, we learn that the kingdom of Deltora is in a long war with the evil Shadow Lord. The kingdom had been protected by a magical belt with a gem—diamond, emerald, lapis lazuli, topaz, opal, ruby, and amethyst—from each of the seven tribes making up Deltora, but the Shadow Lord has subverted the king’s advisors, keeping him separated from the ordinary people and convincing him that wearing the belt all the time is not necessary. In a palace coup, the belt is captured and the gems dispersed. The king and queen escape and go into hiding.

Sixteen years later, Lief, a teenager born soon after the coup, and Barda, a former member of the king’s guard, set off to find the gems with the intention of restoring the belt and helping the hidden heir to the throne overthrow the tyrannical Shadow Lord and his brutal Grey Guards. They encounter Jasmine, a wild but intelligent girl living by herself in the forest after the Grey Guards took her parents, and with her help they recover the first of the stolen gems.

The next six parts follow a similar pattern. Lief, Barda, and Jasmine travel through a different section of the Deltora, defeating monsters, finding friends and allies, solving puzzles, and recovering another gem. Although the structure is repetitious, the descriptions of the seven tribes are imaginative and the individual problems are varied and interesting. There are also elements of an overall story arc woven throughout, and interactions with some ambiguous recurring characters keep it from getting stale. Some plot twists are telegraphed well in advance, but at least one is not.

In the final part, Return to Del, Lief, Barda, Jasmine, and their new allies return to the capital, with the restored belt and a boy they believe is the heir, to confront the Shadow Lord’s agents.

Return to Del has a happy ending, and one could stop reading there, but the war with the Shadow Lord continues in two more collections: the three-part Deltora Shadowlands (or Deltora Quest 2) and the four-part Dragons of Deltora (or Deltora Quest 3). I haven’t read those, but my daughter has, and recommends them.

Audience: late primary school children, mainly.

Posted in Children's Fiction, Epic Fantasy, Noblebright Fantasy | 2 Comments

Temeraire

A British ship has just captured a French vessel after an unusually hard-fought battle. Captain Will Laurence is at first contemptuous of the French captain for risking men’s lives by refusing to surrender long after it becomes obvious they are losing, but on discovering the object in the ship’s hold, he understands their desperation. For the French ship is carrying a dragon’s egg—an egg with a hard shell, meaning it is about to hatch.

The British sailors are exultant over their valuable prize, but Laurence is not, as he contemplates the predicament they are in. Three weeks out from Madeira, they cannot possibly reach a safe port and hand the egg over to the British Aerial Corps before it hatches. The ship’s officers, himself included, put their names in a hat for the ‘privilege’ of imprinting the dragon, but when the egg hatches, the dragonet ignores the man chosen. It opts, instead, for Captain Laurence.

This comes as quite a shock to the well-liked and respected captain. He is required to leave his post in the prestigious British Navy and transfer to the necessary but despised Aerial Corps, full of social outcasts. His friends pity him; his father only avoids disowning him because he doesn’t want to inflame the gossip.

This is the beginning of Temeraire (or His Majesty’s Dragon in the U.S.) by Naomi Novik, the first in a nine-book fantasy/alternate-history series recounting the adventures of Captain Laurence and dragon Temeraire in the Napoleonic Wars. Sort of Horatio Hornblower meets the dragonriders of Pern. But unlike the Pern stories, or any other dragon stories I’ve come across, the ariel battles are team efforts, not fought solely by the dragon and its rider. The fighting dragons in Temeraire are the airborne equivalent of frigates, carrying a full complement of riflemen, bombers, midshipmen, flagmen, and a ground crew. (Yes, these dragons are huge. Best not think about how they manage to fly, or the logistics and economics of feeding a fleet of these voracious carnivores.)

The plot is predictable: the pair undergo a series of adventures and misadventures in their Aerial Corps training, with deepening devotion between man and dragon. Laurence slowly sheds his erroneous preconceptions about dragons and their human associates, and wins the respect of his new officers and crew. Napoleon launches an invasion attempt, and the new trainees play a crucial role in the climactic ariel battle.

This is a familiar tale, but well-told, about friendship and devotion. Temeraire is a fine character in his own right, headstrong and competitive but also kind and more intelligent than Laurence. (He speaks both English and fluent French, learned in the shell aboard the French ship.) He challenges assumptions about duty and loyalty that Laurence had never questioned, to the captain’s discomfort, and nudges him towards acceptance of his new status.

Now about that climactic battle… The dragons fight in midair with dozens of people strapped into harnesses on their backs. These dragons are clawing at each other and performing evasive manoeuvres: dropping, jerking sideways, flipping upside down, etc. I would expect everyone aboard to be suffering incapacitating nausea, whiplash, disorientation, maybe even concussion. But no, they go on about their work without goggles or other protective gear. Worse, while Temeraire is grappling with another dragon, a boarding party leaps from his back onto the other dragon. That’s when I started hooting. That untethered leap was a huge leap of faith, to expect to hook into the other dragon’s harness in mid-flight. If they miss their grab, or an enemy airman pushes them off, or the other dragon bounces a bit, they’ll all going sailing off into the blue, to drop into the English Channel far, far below.

The battle was definitely entertaining, although maybe not quite in the way the author intended. (Am I really the only reader bothered by that reckless leap?)

In short, this is good, clean swashbuckling fun, if you don’t take it seriously.

Audience: all ages.

Posted in Fantasy | 1 Comment

The Goblin Emperor

With New Zealand in lockdown while the pandemic rages and our Prime Minister reminding us to be kind to one another, it seems appropriate to turn to hopepunk. What is hopepunk? I’m quoting here from a longer post by Alexandra Rowland, who defined the term:

Hopepunk says that kindness and softness doesn’t equal weakness, and that in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act. An act of rebellion

Hopepunk says that genuinely and sincerely caring about something, anything, requires bravery and strength. Hopepunk isn’t ever about submission or acceptance: It’s about standing up and fighting for what you believe in. It’s about standing up for other people. It’s about DEMANDING a better, kinder world, and truly believing that we can get there.

The Goblin Emperor, by American author Katherine Addison, is an exemplar of hopepunk, a story with heart. It is also one of the more enjoyable books I have read recently. Eighteen-year-old Maia is the only child of a loveless political marriage between the Emperor of the Elflands and the daughter of the neighbouring goblins’ ruler. As the emperor’s unwanted fourth son, he is never expected to figure in the succession and is raised in exile. But when an ‘accident’ kills his father and three older half-brothers, the ill-prepared Maia is as shocked as the emperor’s court to find himself on the throne. In short order he has to deal with hostile relatives, contemptuous government officials, and the rigid rules of expected behaviour for the individual at the centre of a several-thousand-year-old Byzantine society. And if that isn’t enough, the crash that killed his father and half-brothers was not an accident. Now that he is emperor, is his own life in danger?

Yes, of course his life is in danger, but the mystery simmers on the back burner for most of the book, only coming to the fore close to the end. This is a character-driven novel, not a plot-driven one. The story is rather episodic, showing Maia learning on the job to be emperor. His guiding principle throughout is to be what his cold, arrogant father was not: kind. His kindness is not mere politeness; it is the active, stubborn determination to treat everyone he comes in contact with or has authority over with respect and dignity. He offends his conservative, rigidly hierarchical housekeeper by requiring her to introduce all the household staff to him by name, confounds his secretary and personal attendants by apologising when he makes extra work for them, and upsets schedules by attending the funeral of the crew who died along with his father. And that’s just in the opening chapters.

The setting is not the bog-standard medieval fantasy world peopled with Tolkien-esque elves. There is little apparent magic and the technology level is basically steampunk. (The late emperor and his sons died in an airship crash.) The elves and goblins are almost human, with the only obviously non-human characteristic being ears that express emotion. They twitch in irritation, flatten in embarrassment, and perk up in interest. Maia’s admonition to himself at the beginning, on going to meet the messenger bringing the news, is chin and ears up.

Being almost human, the primary difference between elves and goblins is skin colour: white and black respectively. The implicit moralising about racism is pretty obvious. The two races intermix, and characters of mixed blood are accepted among the lower classes, but many of the full-blooded elvish aristocracy despise Maia for being a halfbreed.

I don’t care for stories about courtly intrigue that are heavy on betrayals and unpleasant people clawing for advantage. There is treachery here, but not by the viewpoint character. Maia is such an appealing person that I dropped all the other books I was reading (I usually have three or four going at a time) to read this one straight through. There’s not a lot of action, other than people talking, but there is plenty of conflict, and I was eager to see how Maia handled the various problems. Unfortunately, some of his successes were due more to his opponents’ stupidity rather than his or his adherents’ intelligence or devotion. Sigh. Usually that bothers me a lot, but here it’s a minor complaint.

The biggest complaint I have about The Goblin Emperor is that the author went seriously overboard in creating a vocabulary and nomenclature for her world, resulting in a word salad of characters names. Names like Pazhiro Drazharan and Varenechibal. There are dozens of named characters, and it gets confusing. The book includes a pronunciation guide and a twelve-page(!) listing of “Persons, Places, Things, and Gods.” You’ll need them. (The first printing in 2014, I believe, had them at the back of the book. My copy, from 2019, has them at the front.)

Even with the pronunciation guide, I’m not confidant I’m getting any of them right. How does one pronounce Csevet? KEVet? KeVET? Or…? And he’s one of the main characters. Reading this out loud to the rest of the family is going to be a challenge!

On the other hand, the author did a terrific job of indicating the imagined language’s distinctions in speech between first person informal (I), first person formal (we), and first person plural (we). A neat trick, given the limitations of representing that in English. After an immersion in this, you’ll be speaking in first person formal, too. Don’t believe us? Give it try; we dare you.

Audience: anyone old enough to read it. Nothing offensive.

Edit 5 April 2020: I wrote “Nothing offensive” completely forgetting a scene that could easily upset some people: the depiction of a rather gory ritual suicide. Now that I have corrected this, maybe I can erase it from my memory again…

Posted in Fantasy, Hopepunk | 2 Comments