chomiji: Doa from Blade of the Immortal can read! Who knew? (Doa - books)
[personal profile] chomiji

Hugo Award Nominee

Maia Drazhar is the youngest son of the emperor of the Elflands, but his mother was a goblin princess whom his father married for diplomatic reasons. He has spent all of his eighteen years in exile, first with his mother but most recently alone except for his guardian, an embittered drunkard. But then Emperor Varenechibel IV and Maia's three older half-brothers all die in the same airship accident, and the unwanted boy wakes up to find that he has become the emperor.

The outline of the story is a classic fantasy trope, but Maia never obtains a magic sword nor leads a troop in battle. He finds the imperial palace to be every bit as lonely as the dreary manor house of his exile, at first, and his deprived upbringing has left him ill-prepared for the task of ruling a large, complex empire on the verge of an industrial revolution. And that airship accident? Wasn't an accident … .

On the basis of my own reading and the writeups I've seen from others, your enjoyment of this book will depend a lot on whether you can deal with a lot of (fairly well done) antiquated formal language in your dialogue and whether you would like something that "fulfills … wishes about nerdy, bullied people achieving great things through peaceful means" (to quote writer/editor Nick Mamatas, who did not find the book to be his sort of thing at all). I enjoyed it enough that it's already become a comfort read.

A couple of decades ago, author Ursula Le Guin wrote about the fact that a pivotal character in a story could be one who makes choices (forgive me, I don't remember where I read this, but it may have been one of the essays in her book Language of the Night). Le Guin was discussing ways in which female characters can be the center of their own stories without following the paths of action traditionally associated with male characters, but I believe that Maia is a male example of this idea. Almost from the beginning, he realizes that if he exploits the awe and subservience that he now evokes in his subjects, he will not only become what he hates but will likely also lose his position (and possibly his life) in short order.

The path he chooses to tread instead is no guarantee of a happy result either, but at least he can live with himself. Some of the people who dislike this book describe Maia as passive, but that's an oversimplification. The setting is not some early medieval society of fiefs owing their ruler military support, but instead a near-modern nation with a well-developed bureaucracy, active guild system, and labyrinthine systems of manners and rituals. Maia's problems are not going to be solved by taking up the sword and leading a troop of warriors. His head is soon spinning with what he needs to learn about running the empire, and the lonely boy from the sticks quickly finds the emperor's complete lack of privacy both depressing and oppressive.

There's been some discussion about whether this is really fantasy or not: the elves and goblins pretty obviously stand in for our own human races. But there is magic. As some have pointed out, the magic is split in classic tabletop RPG fashion between clerical magic (for example, questioning the dead and communicating with the gods) and wizardly magic (we're shown a sleeping spell and a carefully directed lightning bolt).

There is no one single quest (or anything like one) propelling the story. It is "merely" a series of incidents in the first months of the new emperor's reign. Maia is crowned, presides over his father's burial, takes up the reins of the empire, learns his business by doing it, deals with the fact that he is expected to wed strategically as soon as possible, helps solve the mystery of the airship incident that put him on the throne, learns some sharp lessons about trust and loyalty, gains some companionship despite the fact that the whole imperial system seems stacked against it, and takes his first tentative steps toward making his mark on history.

And I found it quite satisfying in the end, with tons of delicious little world-building details along the way.

One heads up that might help, if you're not so sanguine about being thrown into the deep end of a work filled with multi-syllable names, titles, and terminology: the end of the book has a glossary/dramatis personae and some notes about the various honorifics used by the nobles of the court.

Note: Katherine Addison is a pseudonym of Sarah Monette, a/k/a [livejournal.com profile] truepenny.

Date: 2015-07-05 01:46 am (UTC)
yhlee: Fall-From-Grace from Planescape: Torment (PST FFG (art: maga))
From: [personal profile] yhlee
On the basis of my own reading and the writeups I've seen from others, your enjoyment of this book will depend a lot on whether you can deal with a lot of (fairly well done) antiquated formal language in your dialogue and whether you would like something that "fulfills … wishes about nerdy, bullied people achieving great things through peaceful means" (to quote writer/editor Nick Mamatas, who did not find the book to be his sort of thing at all).
I got the same impression--I read part of it despite being warned by my sister that it would not be my sort of thing. It seemed like a good book for people who like that sort of thing. I got about to the halfway point, my PDF reader crashed, I never worked up the motivation to open it up to read the second half of the book.

Date: 2015-07-05 06:16 pm (UTC)
yhlee: Fall-From-Grace from Planescape: Torment (PST FFG (art: maga))
From: [personal profile] yhlee
Actually, upon second thought, I liked that Maia was essentially good; that wasn't a turn-off for me. What was a turn-off was the mannered court setting, which is not a Thing that I'm usually into.

Date: 2015-07-06 06:53 am (UTC)
nenya_kanadka: spaceship from cover of Ancillary Justice (Ancillary Justice)
From: [personal profile] nenya_kanadka
Count me in as someone who loved this book! I think for me the thing that grabbed me by the heart (and was wish-fulfillment, also) was that it was a story of an abuse victim who explicitly chose not to perpetuate horrors on others (including those who had abused him) when he had the chance. Maia is always going "I will not be my father, I will NOT be my father." I think to write that off as a fantasy of "bullied nerds" is selling it short.

(Not that there aren't nerds who are bullied--but that "bullied nerds" is a trope of its own these days, and gets used as an excuse for many of those nerds to be shitty to others, for example by policing other nerds. See also everything from geek fallacies to Gamergate.)

Anyway, I just...I loved that his path to power involved figuring out who he could trust, and how to communicate with people, and that one of his personal heroes was the guy who sat him down and gave him lessons on current politics! It's a book about governing, not just about winning the crown, which is also rare in my experience. And I'm always a sucker for people inspiring loyalty in others through treating them well--and for people gaining an aishid. :)

(He did not quite say "Call me Maia-ji" but what else is "We CAN be friends, of a sort" near the end?)

The only small problem I had with it was that it did seem like such wish fulfillment for someone like me. Maybe it almost felt too easy at times? But that's a small quibble, because I loved the complicated court and the multi-layered naming customs and the guilds and the detection-by-going-undercover-in-the-anarchist-airship-club and the Elf/Goblin cultural mixing, and Maia's fiancé (and his astronomer sister, and Elvish Catherine of Aragon!) and and--!

I want to join the Athmaza when I grow up, I kept saying to myself.

(Also, Nick Mamatas can go step on a lego, but that's a pre-existing opinion.)

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