The Goblin Emperor: Review

The Goblin Emperor: ReviewThe Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
on April 1, 2014
Genres: adult, fantasy
Pages: 448
Format: eARC
Amazon • Indiebound • Barnes & Noble • Goodreads

four-stars

A vividly imagined fantasy of court intrigue and dark magics in a steampunk-inflected world, by a brilliant young talent.

The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an “accident,” he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.

Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.

Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend… and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne – or his life.

This exciting fantasy novel, set against the pageantry and color of a fascinating, unique world, is a memorable debut for a great new talent.

What an intriguing and refreshing surprise this book was! I was hoping I would find a story special and worthy enough to be reviewed on my birthday and I succeeded. Steampunk, feminist elves (and goblin) for the win!

This is not a fast paced, action adventure fantasy. There is no strong magical aspect. Rather, it is a fascinating character study, a meditation on subtle court politics and intrigue, and an examination of the relationships that make it all worthwhile. Much like the intricate clockwork in the story, the book itself is one of many details and pieces, some interconnected, some working separately but contributing their own importance, and all ticking steadily on to bring us one truly complex and captivating tale.

First off, I will say that there is some adjustment needed to the language used. At the back of the book is a guide to the pronunciations and naming conventions. I strongly recommend reading it before starting as it will remove a good deal of confusion. Additionally, the formal conventions of the Elvish court require use of plural at all times. Even when speaking of oneself, “we” is used instead of “I.”  This actually serves a purpose which I will get to in due time!

The names and titles are unique and take some getting used to. But honestly, these are just signs of how much thought and care the author put into creating this world. I really wouldn’t let it discourage you. It is an eminently readable novel. At some point I forgot that I ever even found the language and naming conventions initially confusing and proceeded to rip through the pages.

Maia is a worthy hero and a refreshing change from the anti-heroes or otherwise gray characters so often featured in the genre. Reviled and mistrusted by so many because of his goblin heritage, he is utterly at a loss when suddenly thrown into the viper’s pit of a royal court. Compassionate, kind, and understanding, this is one of the few times where an honestly nice character works for me. Often these types can seem too good to be true, but Maia is always genuine. Really, it’s hard to not like him. It is just downright comforting to spend so much time in the head of someone so earnest and who tries so hard to do what is right. To watch his character develop over the course of the story is a true pleasure.

Maia, startled, realized that not only did he have no obligation to let Chavar scold him like this, but he actually had an obligation to stop him, for the sake of Csevet and the other secretaries and every other member of his government who would never dream of berating the emperor in public. They have the right not to be ruled by a coward, he thought…

The true strength of the novel lies in the development of relationships between Maia and his allies. The side characters are fully realized and often delights unto themselves. The author has a gift for characterization and creating empathy in the reader. She deftly weaves Maia’s ignorance of convention and his good heart to develop his relationship with his guards, often adding a quirk of humor:

Beshelar and Cala took position, one at either side of the throne. He tilted his head back to ask Cala, “May you not sit?”

There was a strangled noise from Beshelar’s direction. Cala said, “Thank you, Serenity, but no. We are well.”

“What if you wished to dance?”

“Serenity, please,” Beshelar hissed. 

And here’s the purpose the constant use of the formal plural serves (I told you I would get there!): when the informal singular is slipped into, it is a sign of high emotion and sincerity. Addison uses this to great effect evoking a well of feelings between characters.

Here is also one of those rare books where there is no real romantic plot line to speak of and yet I still really enjoyed it. As befits the Elven emperor, Maia is quickly betrothed but it is a political decision and purely business. Yet there is a slow friendship and the promise, perhaps, of something more in the future. The novel is forever threading hope through the narrative.

The world building is incredible, detailed and complex. Much care is taken to explain the intricacies of the Elven court but it is never boring. The reading experience was like settling into a cloud of sumptuous details. I couldn’t get enough. The plotting is languorous but never plodding. Nefarious political plots take time to brew, you know.

Intriguingly, there is a strong undercurrent of social justice and feminism. The fate of Maia’s mother and the plight of his half sisters does not go unnoticed by him. There are many three dimensional female characters and they speak their struggles themselves. They want to be free of the Elvish confines that relegate them to child bearers and little more. When one woman expresses her desire to be educated Maia reflects, “We were not considered worth educating, either.” This is a story rich with empathy.

This is a standalone but I would jump at the chance to return to the world and these characters. Or maybe even a companion novel featuring Maia’s lesbian pirate goblin aunt? That’d be great!

Suffused with hope, humor, and a great heaping helping of heart, The Goblin Emperor is political fantasy at its brightest.

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