Guest post: Intrigues of The Untheileneise Court by Katherine Addison

Whether you know her as Sarah Monette or by her pseudonym Katherine Addison, one thing’s for certain — her latest book, The Goblin Emperor, is a clear winner. We here at the BiblioSanctum are pleased to have her join us today to talk about the art of politics in the novel’s Imperial Court. Be sure to also check out the review to see why this is one of the most unique and dazzling fantasies to come out this year.

by Katherine Addison

The Goblin Emperor begins with my protagonist, Maia, discovering that because of a dreadful airship accident, he is now the Emperor of the Ethuveraz, the Elflands, and must leave the shabby, unhappy hunting lodge where he has grown up and go to court, and much of the novel deals with his culture shock.

The Untheileneise Court, the seat of the Elvish government, is–pretty obviously–based on Versailles and the court of Louis XIV. L’etat, c’est moi, Louis said, and while it’s easy to translate the words, it’s hard to translate the exact meaning and nuances of the phrase into English. “I am the state,” is maybe closest, but it has none of the elegance of Louis’ words and it puts them the wrong way round. It matters that the subject of Louis’ sentence is l’etat, because what he means isn’t that the king is synonymous with the state (Shakespeare’s history plays are a series of arguments with and about that idea), but that the state is synonymous with the king. The king is the center around which everything else must revolve.

The Goblin Emperor takes place in a world where the emperor who consolidated power in himself ruled thousands of years ago, and instead of his reign being followed by Louis XV and Louis XVI, it was followed by rulers as canny and power-hungry as himself. So by the time the novel starts, the Untheileneise Court has had centuries to accrete and flourish around the person of the Emperor. He’s still the center, but he cannot possibly oversee–or even be aware of–everything that happens. This is an atmosphere in which intrigue flourishes, like man-eating orchids in a hothouse.

Being the emperor, Maia is largely shielded from the intrigues of his court; we get suggestions of the infighting among the imperial judges and hints of the animosity between the two houses of Parliament, the House of Commons and the House of Blood, and I think it’s very clear that the court is a pit of vicious, grudge-holding vipers, but we don’t see the political maneuvering that must be going on in every corner.

The intrigues of the Untheileneise Court are elegant. There is no poison involved (not anymore, although there are people still alive who remember the great feuds of the reign of Edrevechelar XVI and the night known as the Poisoners’ Ball). Rumor and innuendo are the favored weapons, and defamation dealt with a glittering smile. No one can keep a secret in the Untheileneise Court, and a weakness found is a weakness exploited. If I’d had more space, I would have liked to have explored the role of the imperial couriers, who go everywhere and see everything and who are somewhere in-between servants and courtiers, in a sort of indeterminate space that is both uncomfortable and extremely useful. If anyone knows where all the bodies are buried, it’s the couriers.

We see even less of the goblin court, only the ambassadors and envoys from the Corat dav’Arhos, but goblin politics, while no less involved, are more straightforward. As von Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of politics by other means, and the goblins have developed a system which rocks back and forth over the line, as intrigues erupt in duels or skirmishes between the avarsin, and then fall back into negotiations and schemes. They have no civil wars, but the possibility for internecine violence is never far away. The elves consider the goblins barbarians; the goblins are exasperated by the elvish inability to say anything straight out.

Louis XIV instituted the court at Versailles as a way to keep the French nobility fighting among themselves instead of uniting in a bloc to negotiate with–or issue ultimatums to–the king. He was sufficiently successful that when change came, as change always does, it came from the working class and it came with catastrophic violence. Elvish society hasn’t hit the French Revolution yet; hopefully Maia’s reign will mean that they never do, that reform can come peacefully. But nothing will stop the intriguing and the politics.

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Katherine Addison is a pseudonym for Sarah Monette. She grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one of the three secret cities of the Manhattan Project, and now lives in a 108-year-old house in the Upper Midwest with a great many books, two cats, one grand piano, and one husband. Her Ph.D. diploma (English Literature, 2004) hangs in the kitchen. She has published more than fifty short stories and has two short story collections out: The Bone Key (Prime Books 2007–with a shiny second edition in 2011) and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves (Prime Books, 2011). She has co-written two novels with Elizabeth Bear, and they are working on a third. Her first four novels (MelusineThe VirtuThe MiradorCorambis) were published by Ace. Her latest novel, The Goblin Emperor, came out from Tor in April 2014.

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