Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor has earned what might be termed a fantasy Grand Slam: the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and nominations for the Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy awards.
To make her achievement even more noteworthy, Addison, like Maia, the royal goblin at the heart of the book, is herself a fiction.
The pseudonym was created by author Sarah Monette to satisfy the demands of the publishing industry. As she explains to me in our conversation on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy, her real name had become a "deal-breaker" after sales of the four books of her Doctrine of Labyrinths series had fallen short of expectations.
Tor Books was eager to buy her tale of an innocent and virtually forgotten heir who ascends to the throne of the Elflands after the simultaneous deaths of his father and brothers, but they had one condition. "Tor said, 'We really want to take you on. We're very enthusiastic and excited, but we can't do it under your real name. You have to pick a pseudonym.' And I wanted to continue having a publishing career. So I picked a pseudonym."
While the name change might have given Monette a clean slate of sorts, it's clear to me that The Goblin Emperor's success relies largely on her prodigious skills as a storyteller. But Monette modestly speculates that something else might also be at play--that people may also be drawn to an ingredient that is rare in fantasy: idealism.
"So much of fantasy right now has been so influenced by George R.R. Martin--which, hey, that's excellent as it should be--but it does mean that things have been very grim and bleak and pessimistic and cynical," she says. In contrast, The Goblin Emperor "is arguing that doing the right thing will win; that is, if you try your best to be ethical and compassionate, you will come out on top."
There's no question that Maia's insistence on behaving ethically is refreshing. He faces down cronyism, social inequality and racism by hewing to the values of his Goblin mother, which lead him, among other things, to regard his subjects as equals.
"I wish I could say that I believed that worked all the time in the real world, but I think if we don't make up stories where it does work, it's never going to work," Monette says.
In fact, it was the real world that inspired Monette to create an enlightened emperor. “What I was doing was actually was trying to figure out if there was a way out of the French Revolution without the guillotine and Terror and all the really horrific horrific things that happened.” In other words, if Louis XV been more like Maia, could the French achieved liberté, égalité, fraternité without so much bloodshed?
Not only do I find Maia refreshing, but I also find it refreshing that The Goblin Emperor is a stand-alone (this coming from someone who wrote a two-part series). Rest assured, however, that while Monette has no plans to revisit Maia, she remains loyal to the speculative genres.
"All fiction is lies but science fiction, fantasy and horror sort of flag themselves and say 'Hey--not true. This isn't what the real world is like.' ... The combination of the realistic and the openly unreal is to me something that is endlessly fascinating and that I want to do when I write and I enjoy reading when I find it."