A half-goblin, the youngest son of the emperor has lived his entire life in exile, far from the Imperial Court and the intrigue that surrounds it. But then his father and three half brothers – who are the heirs to the throne ahead of him – die together in an airship crash. Maia is summoned to take his father’s throne.
For Maia, life in the capital is a bewildering and exhausting daily test of his mettle. And before long he discovers his father and half brothers’ deaths were no accident. The airship was tampered with. The crash was murder.
With no friends, no advisers, and no schooling in the art of court politics, the only thing Maia knows for certain is that whoever was behind the assassinations must still be plotting an attempt on his life.
After seeing most of my friends, and much of the SFF blogosphere, geek out over Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, I knew I needed to read it at some point. A few weeks ago I finally got the final push to actually read it (Thank you, Justin) and then the book was nominated for a Hugo, which clinched it: I was reading this book ASAP. And I’m glad I did, because The Goblin Emperor was brilliant and addictive. I just wanted to keep reading this book, even if I had to put down the book because life. I couldn’t wait to go back to Maia’s tale and find out what happened next.
What sets The Goblin Emperor apart from its contemporaries in the field is its tone. In a publishing environment where much of epic fantasy has taken a decidedly dark and grim direction in the past years, The Goblin Emperor offers something quite the opposite. That doesn’t mean that Maia’s story is all sweetness and light – because it isn’t – but it does mean that the narrative is hopeful and optimistic, trying to see the best in people and acting accordingly. When I was asked to describe the book to my husband, the first thing that sprang to mind was that the book was a weird sort of slice of life epic fantasy, where the events impacts an entire empire, yet the narrative is oddly intimate and very much moves day to day, only speeding up towards the end.
Maia is a fascinating protagonist. While not completely naive of the realities of court politics, he is inexperienced in how to survive them, due to his isolated upbringing by a disgruntled courtier who fell from the Emperor’s graces around the time Maia’s mother passed away. Due to this much of Maia’s arc is concerned with learning to navigate around the court and to handle the intrigues surrounding him. As I love me some political intrigue in my fantasy, this aspect of the book was absolute catnip to me. I really liked that much of what made Maia an effective ruler was due to his following his sense of common decency and justice. His developing relationships with not only his nohecharei, his bodyguards, but also his secretary are wonderful; I loved how Addison let them illustrate the tension between the (emotional) needs of Maia the person and the rules that bind Maia the Emperor.
While political intrigue forms much of the plot, I loved that the plot is moved forward through Maia’s forming relationships with those around him, instead of him defeating his enemies ‘on the field of battle’. The connections he forms with those around him and the loyalties they inspire and the alliances they create, are what saves him in the end. I especially liked how Addison had Maia relate to the different women of the court. His reaching out to his father’s first wife was beautifully done and gained him a staunch ally. I also really liked his fiancée, who is more than he first thinks and I loved the way Addison developed not only her character, but also their relationship. Plus Csethiro just kicks ass! Addison litters her narrative with interesting women, who are interesting both because they are women and because of their achievements. However, one thing that niggled me, in hindsight, is that their achievements or rather the acceptance of their achievements – Vedero’s astronomy studies or Kiru’s being selected as nohecharei – is used to showcase Maia’s exceptionality, not theirs.
Addison took some risks in her writing style. The most eye-catching of these, is her use of pronouns in dialogue. In the world of The Goblin Emperor, in addition to the majestic plural we, people use we in all forms of (reasonably) formal speech. In fact, dropping into first person is seen as very personal and shockingly informal. I thought this was a gutsy move, especially as these nuances are hard to convey organically, without resorting to overt info dumping an explanation, yet Addison managed it quite smoothly. Stylistic choices that didn’t work as well, at least for me as a reader, were the overly complicated family names and the apostrophised titles. I kept stumbling over them and back-tracking to get them correctly. Yet ultimately I found I did not care; in the end I just garbled the names and as long as I garbled them consistently everything made sense and the story was so good it drew me on regardless of my stumbles.
The Goblin Emperor made for absolutely addictive reading. I couldn’t get this book out of my head; I even dreamed about it. Was it flawless? No, not really, as illustrated above. But it was completely and utterly immersive and the reading experience was like falling into a warm bath: welcoming and very soothing. I was quite saddened to learn that The Goblin Emperor is a standalone novel, because I definitely would love to return to Maia’s court and see how his life develops. The book ends in a good place, but consistent with my impression of it being a slice of life epic fantasy tale, it also feels as if it could continue on without a hiccup and still be satisfying. “Always leave them wanting more” is an old adagio in many contexts and Katherine Addison certainly held true to that maxim here. I definitely want more of Addison’s writing and hopefully there’ll be much more to come in the future.