“The Goblin Emperor” Review

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“When he opened his eyes, he looked around at the cool darkness, this well of silence, the weight of rock and loneliness and thought ‘this is what it is to be emperor'”

Lately I’ve been craving a good politically focused fantasy story, so the premise of this novel definitely caught my attention as something I wanted to check out. In a kingdom governed by the ruling class of elves, a young half-elf half-goblin named Maia lives in exile until one day an urgent message is delivered to him. His father: the emperor, and his two older brothers have been killed in a mysterious airship accident… suddenly thrusting him forward in the line of succession and making him the new emperor. The ensuing story follows Maia as he attempts to navigate his new position of power and distinguish friend from foe in a court that can be less than kind towards his goblin lineage, and while I felt that this book had issues with it’s pacing and occasional over-complexity, Katherine Addison (the pen name of author Sarah Monette) made up for it with a lush descriptive writing style and a fantastic protagonist.

In a genre where complicated political strategy so often favors and rewards the cut-throat and cruel, it was very refreshing to follow a protagonist such a Maia, who in the face of such conditions, still chooses to be kind and moral. As the reader learns more about his past over the course of the story we understand that he has every reason to be angry about the life which lead him to his current situation, and while he could use his new found power to act vengefully, more often than not he chooses mercy and compassion instead… not necessarily because he doesn’t feel those emotions, but because of a deep passion he develops to be a better emperor than his father before him and to not be the inept usurping spiteful hobgoblin that so many around him perceive him to be. Despite the fantastical circumstances of the situation, Maia’s internal struggles felt very realistic and understandable, and he was by far my favorite aspect of this novel. He was emotional, gentle, passionate, determined, and humble when acknowledging and navigating subjects and situations with which he was unfamiliar. This was often best displayed when interacting with the members of his court, but especially his primary advisers and protectors. Csevet acts as his main political adviser, Beshelar as his physical shield, and Cala as the protector of his spirit (although the book doesn’t go into great detail about what exactly it means to “protect one’s spirit”). As stated previously, in the fantasy genre I’ve grown so used to expecting back-stabbing and betrayal, so it was nice of have a cast of secondary characters such as this that was genuinely interested in supporting their emperor as best as they could. Overall I would have liked for their characters to have received deeper development, but they were still enjoyable and the gradual friendship they develop with Maia was great to watch.

It’s obvious that Addison went to great lengths to ensure that her world was thoroughly fleshed out, and I enjoyed the subtle elements of steampunk she incorporated into its setting. However, I felt that said scope and complexity often hindered my enjoyment of the story… not because I don’t enjoy complicated richly developed fantasy settings, but because the way in which it was executed in this story was often muddled and confusing. It relied heavily on frequent portions of expository info-dumps, which wouldn’t be too bad on their own were it not for the sizable amount of terms, titles, and names used. This likely wasn’t an issue for all readers, but for me several of them were easy to confuse with one-another,and were only made more complicated by the unique naming, title and rank language classifications of this universe. Granted, the back of the novel had a 14 page glossary, but even that at times was unhelpful, as I could be searching for a word like “Drazhada”, which is defined as “the ruling house of the Ethuvarez” and then I would ask “okay, what is the ‘Ethuvarez?'”. Again, I want to emphasize that I’m not criticizing the fact that Addison went to the trouble of creating such a fully developed world and language, in fact I highly commend her for it… I’m just saying that it became very exhausting to have to constantly flip and and forth to the glossary just to keep all the characters, noble family tress and titles straight.

In terms of pacing the novel definitely started off strong, throwing Maia (and the reader) into his new position as emperor right away, and I would say up until about 100 pages in (when Maia had his official coronation) all of the court intrigue and political maneuvering thoroughly kept my attention. However, after that point the pacing definitely lost some steam. Initially it seamed like the over-arching conflict would be to solve the case of the airship crash which killed Maia’s father and brothers, but this was quite often forgotten and swept to the side, and instead he just sort of jumped between different political situations (finding an empress to wed, foreign relations with the goblins, etc). The result was a plot that felt very disjointed and difficult to get deeply invested in, as there wasn’t really an ultimate goal beyond Maia navigating the court and learning how to best act as emperor. The story was at it’s best when Addison gave her characters more emotional personal moments that took the time to develop how they were feeling, and I wish that there were more of said moments as they were when her writing truly shined.

I know that based on all of those critiques it sounds like I didn’t much care for this book, but I did really enjoyed it. Addison had a lovely writing style, the world was very immersive and, as I previously gushed about, Maia was one of the best protagonists I’ve has the pleasure of following in a while! It’s just that I wish that the novel’s weaker elements were less present, as I felt they held it back from being something truly amazing. That being said, I can still confidently recommend this book, especially to fans of complicated political fantasy stories. 3.5/5

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