The Goblin Emperor
By Katherine Addison
Rating: 5+ Stars
‘The youngest half-goblin son of the Emperor lived his life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court. But when his father and the three sons in line for the throne die in an “accident,” he must take his place as the only surviving heir. Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any time. Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naive new emperor, 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 adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor…vigilant against unseen enemies, lest he lose his throne – or life…’
Easily, very easily, one of the best books I have ever read.
The Goblin Emperor is an unusual creature – part political thriller, part steam-punk and part classic fantasy: all brilliant. It reads a bit like a Tudor courtly intrigue, with warring factions seeking to take control of their naïve new ruler. Intricate alliances and feuds going back hundreds of years. The previous Emperor (of pure elven blood) was something of a Henry VIII with wives left right and centre so the kingdom his son inherits is far from satisfied.
Our protagonist is Maia a half-goblin/half-elf, the fourth and least loved son of the Emperor, who ascends to the throne in mysterious circumstances. Maia was never meant to rule, so he knows very little about the kingdom which he is now the Emperor of and it’s a lot of fun to discover the court through his eyes. A lot of what has always been seems ridiculous to him and he’s a nightmare to those who are trying to maintain the status quo. It’s a canny tactic on Addison’s part as it helps to prevent any info-dump or overly-telly sections and it means we get to experience Addison’s incredibly detailed world in easy to handle sections. We learn about things as they become relevant to Maia and the world unfolds seamlessly along with the plot.
Maia – due to the strange circumstances surrounding the deaths of his father and three older brothers – inherits a court in crisis; where there is no clear line of succession, a plethora of feuding noble houses and hostile threats from other countries/provinces.Due to the courtly intrigue theme of the novel, no one he meets is quite what they seem – Maia himself included. Everyone has different motives and Maia’s attempt to gain some control over his own life is bound to clash with some of them. What follows is a great plot and some even better character building.
The Goblin Emperor is a book that really makes you think and packed full of beautiful language. I could very easily quote you huge swathes of the text to demonstrate this but you need to read it to appreciate it for yourself.
Due to the courtly setting, Maia has to switch in and out of the language of courtiers – there is a lot in here about the importance of the right word in the right place being more important then any battle. There’s also a lot of wry humour along the way, particularly between Maia’s unlikely allies; his secretary and his bodyguards in particular. But there are also some very moving moments – particularly in relation to Maia’s relationship with his now deceased mother.
Though the system of rule may be more early-modern, the issues at play still feel very relevant to today. The education of women, the creation of alliances vs. principles, innovation vs. tradition and of course – the one thing Maia never seems to have – free will.
This is in many ways – utterly regardless of genre – something of a bildungsroman novel. It’s about learning how to value for yourself, treating others as you wish you had been treated, learning to make good friends and deciding what matters to you enough to stand up for it. By the end of this novel it’s an utter pleasure to be in Maia’s company and there is something wonderfully uplifting about the last section. In particular there is one conversation about the nature of friendship that it felt like the whole book had been building towards, irrespective of the plot.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. If your like Fantasy – read it. If you like historical novels – read it. To be honest, if you like books at all – just read it. You’ll be glad you did.