The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison is one of those rare books that can seem difficult to find: a stand alone fantasy novel. Although I must say, I sincerely hope it does not remain that way since I loved the characters and world and would very much like to read a sequel.
[The messenger] looked from Setheris to Maia and said, “Are you the Archduke Maia Drazhar, only child of Varenechibel the Fourth and Chenelo Drazharan?”
“Yes,” Maia said, bewildered.
And then bewilderment compounded bewilderment, as the messenger deliberately and with perfect dignity prostrated himself on the threadbare rug. “Your Imperial Serenity,” he said. [pp. 12]
The Emperor of the Elflands despised his fourth goblin wife and, by extension, their son Maia. After the death of his mother, Maia was sent away from court to live with Setheris, a caretaker assigned by his father who also hated this half-goblin boy.
As the ruler of the Elflands has ignored his youngest son through the years, it comes as a surprise when a messenger from court arrives at eighteen-year-old Maia’s home in the middle of the night, presumably with a message from his father. Maia is awakened to greet the messenger, but when he does he is shocked to be greeted in a manner only befitting the emperor himself. This messenger has not come directly from his father but carries the news that the emperor and Maia’s three older half-brothers are dead, leaving Maia next in line to the title of Emperor of the Elflands—a role he is woefully unprepared for even after being raised to observe court manners, having spent very little time at court.
With the aid of his advisers, Maia begins his life at the palace and is crowned Edrehasivar VII. Soon after his coronation but shortly before his father’s funeral, he is attended by those who are investigating the remains of the Wisdom of Choharo, the airship that crashed with his father and half-brothers aboard. They inform him that the investigation revealed that their deaths were not an accident. Maia immediately attempts to discover the truth about who murdered his family; while he had no fondness for his father, his people deserve to know what happened to their emperor and the others who died with him. However, Maia’s methods of seeking the truth anger some who are unhappy that he is now emperor, and he continues to face obstacles to his reign: both those who do not want the youngest, unfamiliar, half-goblin son of their Emperor in power and his own inexperience with the ways of court.
The Goblin Emperor was at the top of my list of most anticipated book releases of 2014. Katherine Addison is a pseudonym of Sarah Monette, and her Doctrine of Labyrinth series beginning with Melusine is one of my favorite fantasy series of all time. The two main characters are deeply flawed, complex, and memorable characters with strongly written, unique voices. After the release of the last book in the series in 2009, I have been impatiently awaiting a new novel from this amazing author and I was not disappointed. While The Goblin Emperor is vastly different from Monette’s other series, it is a skillfully written, compelling story like Doctrine of Labyrinth and one of my favorite books I have read this year.
My personal preference is for Doctrine of Labyrinth with its focus on complex personalities and characterization, but I completely understand that these books may be too dark, depressing, and full of angst for some readers’ tastes. The Goblin Emperor is in many ways the opposite of this. Maia’s life certainly hasn’t been easy—his mother, the only person who loved him, died when he was young, and his father hated him and sent him away to live under the “care” of a cruel, abusive man. The story begins with Maia’s ascension to emperor, though, and while this certainly does not mean his life is perfect and problem-free (or that the past has no impact on his character), it does mean that his father is no longer alive and Setheris is no longer in a position to harm him. Pages are not spent on the deep torment of Maia’s soul, nor is his life from this point on a series of terrible events. Also, Maia is not a character who wallows in despair but one who moves forward.
Though he’s not hopelessly terrible at it, he’s not well versed in politics or court intrigue, but he learns and also tries to effect change for the better. Maia is exactly the type of person one would hope to have in power: one who truly cares about what is best for his people, one who realizes he doesn’t always know best and can take advice from others, and one who can overturn traditions if he’s not convinced there is a good reason for them. He’s not the most complex or unpredictable character since he is someone who will always try to do what is right, but it’s refreshing to read about a good person who is also capable.
That’s not to say Maia is one of those characters I find boring, the unbelievably pure of heart. Sometimes Maia does have unkind yet perfectly reasonable thoughts, such as when he secretly does not want to properly mourn his father at his funeral. He does so anyway because he does not feel it is fair to the people who are mourning him, even if his father failed to properly respect his mother at her funeral. At times, Maia has brief outbursts of temper but is also quick to apologize (which is shocking to others—emperors do not apologize!). I thought he was realistic as a person who is generally good but not so overflowing with goodness that it’s difficult to believe. He also faces many challenges with his new role as emperor, and the way he handles them makes reading about him interesting. I loved Maia; he’s an easy character to relate to and root for.
The Goblin Emperor is a wonderfully written book with a lot of detail. It’s a book with naming conventions, formal speech, and history, and I did find it difficult to keep track of all the names at times. There are a lot of long names, and there are a lot of characters introduced when Maia goes to court, making the glossary at the end of the book very useful. This added a wonderful richness to the book, but I also had to be in the right frame of mind to read it (I caught a cold when I was partway through it and I had to read another less dense book since I was unable to absorb this while not feeling well).
I tend to be wary of fantasy that includes goblins and had this book not been by a favorite author I would have been hesitant to pick it up. After all, when I think of most of the goblins I’ve come across in fiction they’re stupid, dull, evil, and one-dimensional. That is not the case in this book, and goblins and elves are both capable of a range of personalities. They have some differences in appearance and cultural traditions, but they’re not sorted into simplistic categories as they sometimes are in fiction.
The Goblin Emperor is a wonderful story with some politics and court intrigue, and Maia is a memorable, lovable character as one who is pure of heart without being sickeningly so. At its core, The Goblin Emperor is about a young ruler learning to rule and navigate court, and the way he excels and challenges the status quo because of the same inexperience that is at first an obstacle. It’s well-written and compelling with vivid scenes, and I truly hope that there is a sequel someday—or at the very least, another book set in this world. Although, really, I’d read anything by Katherine Addison.
My Rating: 9/10
Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.
Other Reviews of The Goblin Emperor: