When I first read Sarah Monette’s The Goblin Emperor, I was around 13 or 14-years-old and had never attempted any serious worldbuilding. My brief forays had been limited to the shameless imitation of perennial classics such as Percy Jackson… That is to say, I was simply mucking around in the pre-constructed sandbox of our world while sprinkling over my teenage ideas about what constituted “urban fantasy.”
This changed when I read The Goblin Emperor. Set in an industrial world populated by elves and goblins, the book follows Maia, the estranged half-goblin son of the emperor of the Elflands, as he unexpectedly ascends to the emperor’s throne. For all of its steampunk gilt of airships and pneumatics, the story is surprisingly subdued in its fantastic elements. But this is to its advantage rather than detriment. The worldbuilding provides a backdrop to the book’s warm and empathetic approach to character, complementing the political and interpersonal dramas without being overshadowed.
As a 14-year-old, I recall being fascinated by the attention to detail in this book, from vivid descriptions of scenery and locations to the consistency of naming conventions based on its fictional languages. Straightaway, I set out on my first serious attempt to create a secondary world — an attempt I would find insufferably embarrassing later on, but an attempt nonetheless.
On June 22, the sequel to The Goblin Emperor was released. Titled The Witness for the Dead, it follows a side character from the previous book, Thara Celehar. Eager to repeat the experience of reading The Goblin Emperor for the first time, I bought the book on the day it was released and finished it the next day. While Monette’s universe certainly retains its level of cultural detail, there are some notable differences between Witness and its predecessor.
The first difference is the scope of the story. While The Goblin Emperor features all the extravagance of a royal court and politics both national and international, Witness follows the daily business of a civil servant in Amalo, the fictional city where the story takes place. This difference of scope is also reflected in the point of view: The Goblin Emperor is in third person, while Witness is in first.
The narrative intimacy parallels the literal closeness of Celehar to Amalo, as he walks in all corners of the city, from the bourgeois to the impoverished. At one point, he visits the Reveth’veraltamar, a place “where all the bodies that ended up in the canal washed aground.” In order to “mourn for the unnamed dead,” he walks where a murder victim had been found, noting the “gray moss-slimy stones; the slap of the water against the walls of the canal; the smell.” These experiences reveal not only the city in glittering abstract, but its gritty, visceral reality.
Celehar happens to be a very special civil servant: a prelate of Ulis — god of dreams and death — who are the only ones who can speak with the recently deceased. His position leads him to not only tangle with some of the highest authorities in Amalo but also with ordinary people, like opera singers and factory workers. Throughout the book, Celehar is drawn into a hodgepodge of tasks, from resolving inheritance disputes to solving murder mysteries to putting ghouls to rest in remote mountain villages, all while struggling with his own past.
Celehar’s understated perspective allows The Witness for the Dead to tackle issues of class and sexuality with poignancy and grace without coming across as heavy-handed. In The Goblin Emperor, Celehar’s lover Evru killed his wife in order to escape her abuse. Celehar was duty-bound to communicate with the dead woman, revealing Evru as her murderer — and condemning him to death. This event haunts Celehar throughout Witness, an ambient reminder of his status as a closeted religious official in a homophobic society, something that not only caused his grief, but renders it inexpressible, something to be suffered alone.
Themes of race and class are also woven through the narrative. While Amalo is populated by both elves and goblins, with a significant number of mixed citizens, elves are still culturally dominant. When the director of an opera house plans to stage a working-class story starring a goblin woman, it is considered scandalous. Meanwhile, an investigator is convinced that a deadly explosion at an airship manufactory must be the result of sabotage by their society’s socialist-analogues, refusing to believe it could simply be due to the inherently dangerous working conditions. Yet while they form the backdrop of the story, these themes are not explored as deeply as they might have been, had the book’s protagonist been less privileged than Celehar — an elven outsider who, while poor, is still afforded special status by his vocation.
In a sense, The Witness for the Dead is an inversion of the previous book. Maia’s story is that of a hapless young person plunged into the glittering midst of high society and great figures around which conventional history revolves — whose ranks he will soon join. By contrast, Celehar’s story follows a world-weary, middle-aged man, accustomed by profession to rubbing elbows with high society, who finds himself suddenly interacting with more commoners than aristocrats.
This leads me to another difference: character. By presenting the world of The Goblin Emperor through a protagonist so drastically removed from the last — both in circumstance and geography — Witness affords us the perspective not only finer in scope, but colored by the maturity of the narrator. While Maia, isolated for most of his short life, sees an entire nation with fresh eyes, Celehar delves vertically into a single city, through all of its social strata, as his experience allows him to navigate its complex dynamics. And just as the perspective of a seasoned investigator may not provide the best introduction to such a rich and fascinating setting, a newly-crowned emperor cannot retrace a murder victim’s path through the teahouses and back-alleys of a city.
If I had to choose between the two, I did enjoy The Goblin Emperor a bit better. It’s hard for sequels to outdo their predecessors, and Celehar’s narration sometimes felt a little flat. Nonetheless, if you enjoy rich, detailed worldbuilding and poignant exploration of social issues through speculative fiction, then this series is for you.
Amy Wang is a rising sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]