The Goblin Emperor: Yes, it’s fantasy, and yes it’s a novel.

So, back on June 19th I purchased an ebook of the Hugo-nominated work The Goblin Emperor (by Katherine Addison), but it being a sort of hectic and tumultuous time in my life I didn’t immediately read it and then even forgot that I had bought it. Last week, I got my first library card as a Maryland resident in order to take advantage of their ebook lending library for distracting me during a flight back to Nebraska for multiple family events.

The e-library is great, but even more so than the physical library it’s kind of a “take what you can get” situation if you need something to read and can’t wait, as they only have licenses for so many copies of each book. This is how I ended up checking out World War Z, a book that I’d always been slightly interested in reading but had never actually picked up.

When I opened my Kindle app to download the book, I was surprised to find The Goblin Emperor (I had forgotten about it, if you remember) already waiting for me, so I read it first. Having read these two books one right after another was important, for a reason I’ll get back to.

Anyway, in a year when many Hugo works were nominated whose merits are so dubious that even the people who nominated them aren’t discussing their merits, The Goblin Emperor is a novel whose merits have been rather sharply debated. It has been praised highly from a wide number of quarters, but there are some lines of criticism that have cropped up and been repeated even outside the quarters of the Puppy campaigns (though they are found most often and most vociferously within those quarters).

They are:

  • It’s not really fantasy, so much as an alternate history with non-human races because there’s no magic or other speculative element.
  • It’s not really a novel, because there is no plot/no conflict. This criticism is also phrased as “It’s more of a series of anecdotes than anything.”

The standard Puppy nonsense of “SJWS ARE SHOVING MESSAGES DOWN OUR THROATS AND VOTING FOR STORIES FOR AFFIRMATIVE ACTION REASONS” has certainly come up, too, of course, but it’s hardly worth engaging with them.

Now that I have read the book, I really have to wonder: did the people making those two criticisms of it do so? If they did, I don’t think they could have read it carefully. While the vision of elven and goblin societies in The Goblin Emperor are an example of intricate and engrossing worldbuilding, the magic-using classes of society appear to have been lifted straight out of classic D&D; e.g., there are clerics and there are wizards.

If you need someone to speak with the dead, you call a cleric, just like you would in a D&D game. The book makes it clear that this sort of thing is a bit passé in the modern world, but a major subplot (and the resolution of the main plot) revolves around the fact that it is a thing that clerics can do. And if people aren’t calling on clerics for miracles routinely, magic is still such an integral part of elven society that the emperor is expected to be accompanied by a wizard literally everywhere he goes.

And I mean literally everywhere. The emperor does not go to sleep without his bodyguards, one fighter and one blue-robed, magic-slinging wizard, there with him. The book understandably elides the toilet habits of the emperor, but the refrain about the emperor having no privacy and the bodyguards’ reaction to the few times he requests it makes it clear: they are there all the time.

Since the book opens with the titular character becoming emperor and he’s enthroned very early on and the book never strays from his point of view, this means that upwards of ninety percent of the book contains one of the few wizard characters who occupy the position of Wizard-Bodyguard, and these characters are referred to constantly. Now, they’re not casting magic constantly. They are there to protect the emperor’s life, which means they don’t use magic frivolously, for entertainment or convenience or comfort.

Two spells are cast by our blue-robed mazei (the elven term for mages, apparently) in the course of the book, but they’re both unambiguously magical and also things that would be associated with wizards in D&D: a sleep spell and a lightning bolt spell.

So that’s a lot of mention of wizards and very little wizardry, but it’s also unambiguously “real” magic, not “Well maybe it’s all hocus-pocus and the power of suggestion” magic. Also, in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, the chief duty of a professional wizard is to not use magic, yet few people suggest it’s not really fantasy.

Because the book uses invented language to refer to concepts that hold important places in elven society, I can forgive people for not immediately catching on that the blue-wearing order of people who supply one half of the emperor’s traditional bodyguards are supposed to be actual-fantactual dyed-in-the-robe wizards the first few times that they’re mentioned, especially since the included glossary is 1) in the back and 2) oddly incomplete when it comes to the subject of the wizards and their order.

But by the time they’re mentioned to be casting “cantrips” and throwing lightning bolts around? Well, I can only really conclude that the aforementioned critics did not read the book that far. Both of those events are also moments of pivotal plot development/revelations, which might also do something to explain why so many of the same critics were not aware a plot was there.

The plot criticism… well, when I read those types of comments, including by people who were otherwise defending the book, I was prepared for a non-traditional plot structure, which I’m okay with. But actually, the book’s plot is rather conventionally structured. The conflict is not, as some have said, “Protagonist vs. Self” but rather “Protagonist vs. Villains”. The character does grow and change and come to the sort of epiphanies that some people believe marks a plot. From the first page, there is a mystery that is gradually unraveled over the course of the book.

Moreover, far from being a “series of anecdotes”, the book’s narrative flows unbroken from the moment we first meet Maia on the first page until the end. I’m not saying there aren’t any moments fast-forwarded over, but that they are fast-forwards and not jump cuts from an arbitrary stopping point to an arbitrary starting point. Every time the clock or calendar is advanced, it’s for a reason, taking us from one plot-relevant scene to another.

I suspect that other than “just not reading the book to begin with”, the reason I’ve seen more than one person saying the book is plotless is because they did not understand the plot, because while it was conventional in its structure, it was unconventional in its presentation. The title character, an outsider suddenly elevated to the role of emperor of the elven lands, has to rely on others to provide him with information, carry out investigations, et cetera. So while he drives the plot, he does so indirectly and then often learns the results of the things he sets in motion secondhand. The book is a political thriller in the purest possible meaning of the words, where the viewpoint character is not an intrepid reporter or secret service agent or military intelligence specialist but a politician, or at least a political leader.

Because of the conceits under which Addison was writing (that we don’t stray from the emperor’s point of view, that the emperor is trapped by his role and forced to rely on others, et cetera), the resolution of the actual main plot is largely anti-climactic and the book continues from there through a coda that allows our hero to have a more personal triumph that hints at the nature of his likely long and successful reign. Perhaps this decision contributed a bit to the feeling of “not a novel, just a series of events” that some people complained of, yet the plot was there. And while people have complained of the similar codae to the Lord of the Rings, I’ve never yet heard anyone claim that the decision to show what happens after the plot is resolved robs Lord of the Rings of its essential story-ness.

And that brings me back to World War Z.

Years back, people criticized Rachel Swirsky’s nomination for “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” in the category of Best SF/F Short Story under similar grounds: that it wasn’t a story as such, merely a vignette. It was likewise criticized as being not worthy of that Hugo category for not being a “real” fantasy story, a subject I’ve dealt with before. The fact that these two Hugo-nominated works were both criticized separately on the same grounds is something that has bugged me before, but then I read World War Z back-to-back with The Goblin Emperor, and now it more than bugs me.

Because you know what is literally “a collection of anecdotes”? World War Z. That’s the format that the book takes. And yet I doubt anyone who has read it would question that it tells a story or that it constitutes a novel and not, say, a collection of short stories.

You know what else is more of a collection of anecdotes than a self-contained novel? Any given book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Sure, we can understand that they’re all collectively telling one story, or something that will be seen to be a single story when it’s completed. We could say they have many plots instead of one plot, but even then we’re stuck with the fact that this plot over here might have begun in this book but doesn’t end until that plot, and so on.

I’m not pointing this out to demand that people immediately start criticizing George R.R. Martin or Max Brooks on these same grounds; I’m just pointing out that by and large, people don’t. And while people have criticized Tolkien for some of the odder vignettes that were included in Lord of the Rings, no one to my knowledge have used it as an excuse to say, “Well, it’s not really a novel, is it?”

It might be that this is only the case because absent an honor being awarded for something that is specifically a novel (or in the case of “…Dinosaur…”, a short story) there’s no point in splitting such a hair, but I suspect that if any of these or several other works that take a vignette/mosaic/what-have-you approach to storytelling were nominated there wouldn’t be anyone trying to refute their eligibility based on trying to pin down an objective definition for a unit of storytelling.

Because this kind of scrutiny is so ridiculous and so pointless that it only crops up at a noticeable level when there’s another purpose being served, such as gatekeeping.

Katherine Addison is a woman who wrote a novel that made it onto the Hugo ballot on its own merits. Rachel Swirsky is a woman who wrote a story that had a radical pro-SJW message shoved down our throats. Nota bene: I still have yet to find anyone who can explain what message it shoved down my throat, but I have been assured that it’s totally there.

People question the legitimacy of these works not because they have any kind of deep and abiding respect for the sanctity of the terms “novel” and “short story”, but because they object to them. They object to their existence, to the fact that they have received positive notice. Puppies and others saying that “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” isn’t a story and The Goblin Emperor isn’t a novel is not that different from Gamergate saying that Gone Home isn’t a game. The point is to explain away its success as irrelevant while also trying t head off any further success.

I am not a Hugo voter, but if I were, I would totally be voting for The Goblin Emperor for best novel. It is not a perfect book. Despite having been pinned with a reputation for being a “Social Justice Affirmative Action Message Book” or whatever the puppies call it, it does suffer from some of the most common missteps in fantasy dealing with race. The decision to hide all information about pronunciation, translation, and pronoun casing in the back of the book also affects its readability, particularly in the electronic edition (where flipping from one point to another is trivial, but flipping ahead is a good way to irrevocably lose your place).

Yet for these faults, it’s a great book and it got there on its own merits. It could have been a bog standard “D&D World With The Serial Numbers Filed Off” but it’s so much more than that.

I understand the point of view of people who are voting No Award for the entire ballot on the principle that voting any other way legitimizes the Puppies’ tactics or on the principle, but I believe in the case of the Best Novel category, voting for a work that made it on despite their machinations rather than because of them would not carry such an unintended message.


Note: A previous version of this post reflected that The Goblin Emperor replaced a withdrawn work on the ballot. This was an error of my own memory that was caught by multiple commenters, and the post has been edited appropriately. Apologies for the mistake.