Saturday, 19 March 2016

The Goblin Emperor (and twelve hours in RPA emergency)

The Goblin Emperor saved my life - or at least my sanity - one hectic Friday night at Newtown's social off-ramp, the emergency department of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

I'd heard rave reviews of this fantasy novel by Katherine Addison (the pseudonym of Sarah Monette) but found it almost impossible to track down a print copy, so I downloaded a Kindle version to my phone.

And then I stupidly broke my hand and found myself at RPA emergency, among the first wave of weekend tragedies.

I was greeted by wide open toilet doors and the sound of overdosed teenagers throwing up, and struggled over to grab a triage chair. At first I was very relaxed as I had my bag of ice and the triage nurse saw me straightaway. I said no to medication because I figured I wouldn’t be there long.

“Oh, you’ll need the medication,” he said.

Six hours later I went back to check if they’d forgotten me. I was told I hadn’t been waiting six hours at all, only five hours and thirty-three minutes. “That’s nothing,” he said.

So, afraid to leave my spot on the blue chairs, I got hungrier, colder and more tired as I waited for the doctor to come and take me through to the mythical world behind the glass door.

I was, of course, on the lowest rung of the ladder. Several people were cancer patients needing urgent pain relief. One woman couldn’t breathe and another man was having panic attacks. One dishevelled man needed an abscess cut from his tooth.

“Give me a scalpel and I’ll do it myself,” he yelled.

He had packets of Starburst lollies, the only thing he could suck nourishment from, and he offered them around to everyone. He smelled like a Newtown footpath, and I said thanks but no thanks as he told his life story, how he’d been abused by his stepfather, and then by another man after leaving home, and then his struggles through life. After nine hours he got seen but yelled at the doctor and was escorted out by security. Only through the intervention of a rough looking but sympathetic nurse was he let back in.

A procession of babies was rushed through, and each time I shivered at the parent’s panicked impotence. Each was rushed to the front of the queue and all had left by the end of the night. An intellectually impaired couple argued while one waited for medication. Two young men came in, one’s hand wrapped in a bloody cloth. Still pissed, they were laughing and joking about the accident: a stumble with a schooner glass. After another five hours the laughter died down and eventually the parents arrived to help. A lesbian couple came in – one a small, tough tattooed woman with a half-shaved head and a blue singlet; the other, her girlfriend, looked like a posh school alumnus – except she had a fresh bloody scar right across her face. I never found what had happened.

Behind the glass wall I could see even worse cases brought in by ambulance and the police – the results of fights, car accidents and more serious misadventures.

All this time – until I was finally discharged into a drizzly Newtown dawn – I read The Goblin Emperor on a three-inch screen. I balanced the phone in the crook of my right arm, as I was using my good left hand to hold the dribbling ice-bag in place. I was glad I had something to read, although the fantasy world of the Elflands was a long way from the reality of the RPA emergency.

Of the book, what can I say? I think the rave reviews overstated the entertainment value of Addison’s world. For a start, the names were near indecipherable, all having extremely similar prefixes which it took me three-quarters of the book to work out.

One reviewer compared it to Game of Thrones. If so, it’s GoT without any nudity, salacious sexuality – or even standard sex – express violence, wars, battles or bloodshed of any significant type. There is bugger all magic and worst of all, they never ever leave the bloody castle! Even when a spy is sent to the communist-infested airship factory to uncover a regicide plot, we only hear about it second-hand.

However, the protagonist is likable and does grow into his role, and he has a strong voice. And I must admit, despite my criticisms, I read the whole thing straight through, as it was strangely compelling.

So, if you feel like a sexless, bloodless, low-magic, battle-free Game of Thrones focusing entirely on court intrigue and set wholly within a castle, this might be your thing. But I'm guessing that's a limited audience.

(Tor Books)

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