Why are aristocratic forms of government so common in fantasy? Is it because so much fantasy is set in faux-medieval countries and polities, and so kings, dukes, countesses and their ilk are the expected and anticipated methods in which a country is going to be ruled? It is true that for much of human history, for a large proportion of the glove, large complex societies have tended toward a hierarchical social pyramid, often with a single figure, or a small group of figures, on top.
From a literary standpoint, though, a limited number of political actors offer enormous advantages for writers and their readers. A democracy or republic would mean a cavalcade of characters for the writer create and depict, not only as political actors, but simply as characters. Even a novel completely and utterly focused on the sausage-making of political decisions would be unreadable if the author had to detail 300 electors in the course of the plot. Attempts at simplification of republican politics in novels and stories usually mean collapsing factions and political alignments to a few key actors that can be explored–which returns us to a de facto aristocratic form of government. In other words, we return to Kingdom Politics and the limited number of characters that ultimately matter.
Katherine Addison’s (Sarah Monette’s) The Goblin Emperor takes the idea of Kingdom politics in fantasy and puts it front-and-center in a story about the royal court of a faerieland realm of elves and goblins. While kingdom politics is often in the background of a work of fantasy, the full focus on a royal court and its doings is less common. The Goblin Emperor eschews high action and adventure for a story intensely focused within the walls of the royal palace and the politics and culture therein.
The classic method for a writer to introduce a reader to the tangled politics and characters of a royal court is via an outsider character unfamiliar with the court (as we are). The major players can be met and engaged with on a personal and political level. In Anne Leonard’s Moth and Spark, for example, we get a look at the royal court of Caithen not only through Prince Corin, but also through Tam, newly arrived at Court and thus a vehicle for the reader to learn about the characters that inhabit the royal palace. The short-lived TV show Kings, depicting a modern-day imaginary nation governed by a King, catapults unlikely war hero David Shepherd into the hothouse environment of Shiloh’s royal court, thus causing a new and vicious round of personal politics, scheming and backbiting.
The Goblin Emperor takes a different tack. Our protagonist in the novel is Maia, the excellently drawn exiled young son of the King, living in an isolated and decrepit estate far away from the corridors of power. A tragic airship accident that claims the life of King and heirs moves Maia from exiled outsider to the throne itself. Living isolated, with an unkind teacher/mentor/guardian has ill-prepared Maia to be the monarch no one ever expected him to be, and it is his unlikely King Ralph-esque ascension to the throne — and its consequences — that propel the plot of the novel. Maia knows as little of the Court as the reader does, and the author does an excellent job of not only showing the Court to us through him, but also illuminating Maia himself. He was not raised to ever be the heir, so we see the clash of his personality come up against the realities of court life. He is a very human protagonist, despite his half-goblin ancestry. And given the usually lower social status of goblins in the elf-dominated faerieland of the kingdom, the author explores the additionally interesting dynamic of a minority monarch coming to power. It certainly influences his personality, outlook, and relations with the Royal Court in extremely interesting ways.
An unlikely outsider protagonist as a reader avatar, however well written, only goes so far. Beyond Maia himself, the most vivid character in the book, there is a constellation of major and minor characters. Even if not a republic, a royal court has an enormous number of players. There is, thankfully, a glossary of concepts and characters at the end of the book, as well as information about the world that conlangers especially will delight in. Given the focus on the court as a place, the lack of a world map isn’t as disappointing as it might’ve been.
Unlike the aforementioned Moth and Spark and Kings, our perceptions of the cavalcade of characters are all ultimately focused through the tight third-person perspective of Maia himself. With such a strong filter, the reader’s perspective of the other characters is necessarily limited. While this does limit the reader and constrict the view of the court, it does make a completely alien court much more manageable for the reader to try and get their head around. And, too, Addison makes good use of the mismatch between Maia’s perception of various characters and their actual nature. Character revelation is an important technique used in the running of plot and drama.
Aristocratic systems of government — even more than more republican and democratic forms of government — are, in the end, about the people that make up the royal court. If politics are personal, aristocratic government is intensely personal. Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor is a fine example of the form, and worth reading for anyone at all interested in the intense hothouse social map of a very political faerieland royal court.