Nicking from Novels: Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor

This week, we’ve got an arbitrary grab rather than a recommended must-read. I vaguely remembered seeing something about Katherine Addison’The Goblin Emperor before I saw it on the library shelf, but it was not until I got it home that I realized I’d read some of the author’s own thoughts about it on John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea” feature.  (Fun tidbit, “Katherine Addison” is the pen name of Sarah Monette, who in addition to being a novelist holds a Ph.D. in English literature. #postac tie-in!)

The Overview: Court intrigue set in a world populated by elves and goblins (who are biologically similar enough to crossbreed). There are airships and clockwork and gas lamps, but also limited amounts of magic. Intermittent acts of violence, but there’s no war or combat here. Third person limited point of view (protagonist’s only). Rich cultural background and a thoroughly fleshed out system of names, titles, and etiquette. The names and titles, incidentally, are in concocted language that takes some getting used to, but adds to the immersion.

The Plot: Stranger in a strange land. Maia, the forgotten son of a bitter political marriage, becomes the titular emperor after an airship accident kills the sitting emperor and heirs. He is quickly sucked into an imperial court he hardly knows, navigating political and personal challenges while he establishes his power. It’s part Bildungsroman and part political thriller set in a fantasy Versailles.

The Cool Thing to Consider:

There are many, many excellent things in this novel. It’s a damn good book. Before I was “supposed” to be reading it to prepare for this feature, I’d already picked it up and been sucked in. Addison’s Maia is a wonderfully human protagonist, a completely believable blend of naïvete, native cunning, and moral decency. The complicated names and titles begin as a distraction, but quickly become familiar enough to help the reader navigate the hierarchies of the imperial court. The supporting characters are standard tropes (conniving minister, painfully upright soldier, absent-minded mage, super-competent secretary), but you only notice that when you try to describe them. Addison’s characterization clothes those trope-ish skeletons in believability.

I could write about any of those things, but I want instead to dig in to the novel’s first chapter. Beginnings are, generally, hard, but The Goblin Emperor sucks the reader in right away. This will be a little more technical and detail-oriented than my previous Nicking from Novels posts, because it’s worth going into that detail to figure out how a great opening chapter works.

Addison starts with one of the canonical sins of story openings: her protagonist waking up. You’re Not Supposed to Do That. Addison gets away with it because she immediately levers us into action (rather than reflection or description): “Maia woke with his cousin’s cold fingers digging into his shoulder.” From the first sentence, we know that something is wrong. Maia is confused. His cousin snaps commands and uses exclamation points, giving neither Maia nor the reader time to lay back and figure out what is happening. Despite the “waking up” first sentence, this is really an in media res beginning. The action’s already going, even if the protagonist doesn’t understand what it is.

By the third page, the reader has learned that Maia’s cousin Setheris is a bitter alcoholic who has thoroughly cowed Maia. We learn that Maia is young, a half-goblin. We get glimmers of Maia’s appearance in contrast to the travel-stained but elegant messenger. We get a profound sense of Maia’s confusion and shock. After the messenger has verified Maia’s identity, we get the following passage:

“And then bewilderment compounded bewilderment, as the messenger deliberately and with perfect dignity prostrated himself on the threadbare rug. ‘Your Imperial Serenity,’ he said.”

Look at how much Addison gives us with that pair of sentences. Maia is doubly “bewildered.” The messenger is a disciplined courtier with impeccable manners. The house (of which we have seen little) is run-down, an odd place to stash an archduke. And then we’re hit with the revelation of Maia’s new title. Explanation of the airship crash that killed Maia’s father and half-brothers follows. We need it just as much as Maia does.

The whole book is peppered with these kinds of dense statements. It’s over 400 pages in hardcover, but you don’t notice. Addison wrings impressive amounts of detail out of every statement and interaction. Pure exposition is virtually nonexistent.

Back to the first chapter. Once the messenger has made his announcement, Maia opens the letter that formally invites him to the court (for his father’s funeral). Addison prints that letter for us, something she does intermittently through the rest of the book. This particular letter is from the lord chancellor, who is not, we are shown right away, somebody who holds Maia’s best interests at heart. Bam! We have an adversary, and we’re still in the first chapter. How do we know the chancellor’s an adversary? The bitter cousin explains it, dissecting the letter for function and hidden meaning. (Addison uses this device throughout the novel to good effect.) The cousin mentions in passing that he and the chancellor are old enemies. He all but demands that Maia disrupt the chancellor’s plans by immediately heading to the capital by airship.

In the seven pages of the first chapter, Addison gives us the precipitating event (the airship crash), the biggest challenge of the plot (the unprepared Maia must become emperor), a lingering difficulty from Maia’s vanishing life (the abusive alcoholic cousin), a direct impending threat (the lord chancellor), and foreshadows what comes next (the airship journey to the capital). Seven pages! And one of them is half-eaten by a block-quoted letter. That is some phenomenal density of good stuff, all managed without anybody talking even a little to the camera. Addison takes advantage of the naive protagonist, sure, to explain some of the things her readers need to know. The casual density of meaning in her sentences, though, makes the exposition more like the steady flow of sand through and hourglass than the lumping together of plotbricks. Most importantly, she keeps her characters moving, literally and metaphorically. The first chapter feels like a rush to catch up with a story that’s already running ahead…and I mean that in the best way possible.

What We Nick from this Novel

Get in the car! I’ll explain on the way.

Especially for pantsers, it’s easy for early chapters to be about the story rather than part of the story. It’s okay to write your way into the story, but don’t make your readers follow along. Think about how you can set your characters in motion (even if it’s just metaphorical movement). You do not have to start in media res, but give your readers some mystery or threat or treasure to be interested in right away. Don’t let the readers get it, obviously, but give them that urgent invitation to get in the car. You’ve got the rest of the book to explain what it all means.

Also, go read The Goblin Emperor, because it is excellent even if it lacks for swordfights.

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