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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 [ profile] truepenny.

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