Book Review: The Goblin Emperor

The Goblin Emperor
by Katherine Addison
Fantasy
448 pages
Published in 2014

After an airship crash kills Emperor Varenechibal IV and his eldest three sons, Varenechibal’s fourth and ill-favored son Maia ascends to the imperial throne as ruler of the elflands. The only child of a loveless political marriage, Maia was relegated to a dreary former hunting lodge after his mother died when Maia was just eight years old. His guardian, Setheris, was a political exile who loathed Maia and often abused him, providing only a suggestion of an education while keeping what culture and entertainment came to their dismal home away from Maia out of sheer spite. So when Maia ascends the throne at eighteen, he is naive and under-educated, knowing nothing of the political entanglements he is suddenly in charge of. But thanks to his mother’s early influence, Maia has a good heart and a genuine concern for those around him. And more wits than anyone– including Mais himself– gives him credit for. But a kindly nature will not ensure Maia’s survival, for the investigation into the crash that killed his father and brothers soon reveals that it was no accident. It was murder.

The Goblin Emperor was nominated for multiple awards after its release in 2014 and went on to win the Locus Award. While it was neither a runaway bestseller nor a hyped release akin to Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance (also released in 2014), The Goblin Emperor became a cult favorite, beloved by many fantasy readers who embrace the novel’s inherent decency and warmth, characteristics that put it in sharp contrast with the more popular grimdark subgenre, with its treachery and morally gray characters. The young emperor, Maia Drazhar, is an eminently relatable character: young, anxious, worried about what others think of him, and always wanting to do the right thing. He shines like a light compared to other, morally gray characters in fantasy, and if there is an element of wish-fulfillment in the story, what of it? It is not a bad thing to wish for a leader who truly has his people’s best interests at heart.

The novel stands out against other fantasy stories, too, in that it doesn’t involve a grand adventure, battles, or a quest for the Magical Thing that will help the characters defeat a dark lord. In fact, there is no dark lord or any other melodramatic villain cackling in the background while plotting world domination. The battles Maia fights are internal and institutional. As a gray-skinned half-Goblin man in a xenophobic court that values white Elven beauty, Maia has plenty of internalized racism to battle. On a grander level, he pushes back against generations of traditional classism and sexism that keep people– often women of the court– from realizing their full potential. And while there is no grand revolution by the end, no great triumph that leads to the populace carrying Maia into the sunset on their shoulders, one gets the sense that things will get progressively better under Maia’s reign.

There are other factors that make The Goblin Emperor a wonderful book, namely Addison’s elegant prose and her intricate worldbuilding. This is a secondary world fantasy that blends magic with Steampunk elements to make a world that feels unique, but also familiar. Chamomile tea is a familiar to the characters as airships, and because Maia and the others regard them as ordinary parts of the world, the reader comes to regard them as familiar, too. The most confusing parts come from the elements of the constructed language: terms of formal address and architecture are commonplace and are used with little to no explanation, save for the glossary at the beginning of the book. Still, with use these terms become familiar and add to the world’s character.

Ultimately, though, it’s not the elements of a constructed language or the magic system or the politics that bring readers back to the world of The Goblin Emperor. It is Maia’s essential kindness and decency, and the fact that, in a byzantine political structure full of gossip-mongers and power-hungry nobles, these core qualities are Maia’s greatest strengths, not his greatest liabilities. Call it mere wish-fulfillment if you want, but there is something comforting about the thought of a leader who puts his people’s needs ahead of his own, and is successful because of it. In our own cynical world of political deadlock, we can only dream of having a ruler like Maia Drazhar.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Goblin Emperor

  1. Not sure why but this is one I’d passed over when it first came out, and not just because I already had too much to read. I think I just ignored it, not entirely sure why. But based on your thoughts and some others I’ve read I suspect it’s one I would really enjoy. At least every so often it’s nice to read a book with a slightly more positive feel to it. 🙂

  2. It’s such a lovely book! Definitely a feel-good kind of book. Maia has so much to overcome, but he just keeps at it and he’s so concerned about the people around him. It’s wonderful. I recommend the audiobook, as the names are strange and difficult to pronounce if you don’t have some sort of guide.

  3. Pingback: Sunday Sum-Up: October 23, 2021 | Traveling in Books

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