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.
A pseudonym of Sarah Monette. Both Sarah and Katherine are on Twitter as @pennyvixen. Katherine reviews nonfiction. Sarah reviews fiction. Fair warning: I read very little fiction these days.
Sarah/Katherine was born and raised in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one of the three secret cities of the Manhattan Project.
She got her B.A. from Case Western Reserve University, her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Despite being summa cum laude, none of her degrees is of the slightest use to her in either her day job or her writing, which she feels is an object lesson for us all.
I am so wretchedly late to the party, but I'm so glad I finally picked up this book.
Everything about The Goblin Emperor sung to me: from the clarity of its prose, to its delicate internecine politics, to its understatedly gorgeous and thoughtful world-building, to the way it deals, very achingly, with the terrible buried wounds of childhood abuse, the deep scouring griefs of unbelonging, and that quiet, painful pang of recognition when you read “it was the first time in his life Maia had been surrounded by people who were like him.” And of course, Maia, because if there's anything that wraps its fingers through my heart strings and pulls, it's a devastatingly gentle-hearted character who, despite being weaned on so much malice and bitterness and enduring the most gratuitous and unutterable of cruelties, chooses not to harden his heart into steel and meet hate with hate, but to embark upon the path of compassion and kindness instead.
All in all, I loved this book so unreservedly. Something about it pulled me tenderly towards the feeling of being 13 and hurrying back home from school, alight with a ferocious giddiness and determined to erase myself, and the whole world around me, into a fantastical story. I owe a great debt of gratitude for Katherine Addison for giving me that moment.
December 2021 Update Me, Christmas Eve day: I could read one of the hundreds of books on my to-read list, some of which are literally sitting on the nightstand by my bed, or...I could spend the whole day reading The Goblin Emperor again, cover to cover. Let's do that.
June 2019 update: We started doing short recommended read blurbs at my library and I had to push my favorite book to re-read in dark times, so here's what I wrote:
Do you have a favorite novel that you re-read every year? This is mine. This absorbing high fantasy novel is hopeful, heartfelt, and focused on characters who choose kindness and empathy over and over, even in circumstances when one might turn to cynicism. The story follows Maya, the half-goblin son of the elvish Emperor, who has lived his entire life in exile. When his father and all his other heirs die in an “accident”, Maya becomes Emperor and must navigate an Imperial court filled with deadly intrigue. This is not your typical, by-the-numbers lost heir story; it’s rich, sophisticated, and political, full of steampunk technology, dark magic, and courtly intrigue. You will be charmed.
Original 2014 review We thoroughly enjoyed this book, but we have been unable to stop thinking in the majestic plural for many hours after reading many passages of dialogue written as such. We fear that our adoption of this narrative strategy will result in some confusion amongst our peers and are attempting to restrict it to our thoughts and not our spoken words. We could not avoid writing a brief and enthusiastic recommendation for this most absorbing high fantasy novel; however, we will bide our time until this strange feeling has passed before we write the rest of our summation.
If you ask me, no-one is going to rain on this parade – simply because there is no rain on the books here. No matter how much I often enjoy a dark and epic fantasy book, having one that is completely different in tone is refreshing. It’s a fantasy novel told from the perspective of one humble and utterly likeable young man – somewhat back to the fantasy novel style of the ’80s. Throughout the book, I honestly couldn’t shake the feeling that in another life Maia might have been raised in Aunt Pol’s kitchen at Faldor’s farm.
Maia, fourth son of the Elflands’ emperor and born from his fourth and purely political marriage with a goblin princess, was raised in seclusion far away from court. In a country dominated by pure elves, his existence had always been considered somewhat of an abomination, and he only set foot in court at one occasion: his mother's funeral. Fourth sons are never expected to raise the throne, but accidents do happen and Maia is forced to the capital city.
This is sort of a political fantasy book, chronicling the struggles of an unprepared boy to take the throne and stand up for himself. Anyone who demands fast action in their fantasy novels should probably walk away, but if you like character-based books this would suit you. There is a lot of court intrigue, but above anything else it has heart, a sense of friendship, responsibility and a lot of humour.
“He thrives on brambles. The thornier a problem is, the happier he seems to be in the solving of it.” Her smile made her lovely. “Our thanks is worth little, to be sure, but nevertheless, we thank you, Serenity. For landing him in the brambles.”
The language in the book - with the royal ‘we’ - works really well: it fits its premise and the court environment without getting heavy or difficult to read. I also loved the little quirks that were added, including the subtle notions of elf ears that might betray some emotions by twitching or flattening, leading to Maia's internal instructions to appear self-confident: "Back straight, chin and ears up."
Behind the hopeful tone of the book are a lot of current world themes: No-one lets him forget how he is ‘the goblin emperor’ and not a white, pure-blood elf. I personally cannot stand the way media (and people) keep referring to others: Obama, the first black president, or how some CEOs will always be referred to as ‘the female CEO of company X', or even how Belgian’s Elio Di Rupo is referred to as the first (openly) gay prime minister. The fact people feel the continued need to point this out means that we still regard it as 'not normal'. So I keep wondering whether this is anything to celebrate, or whether it is just really depressing.
Another theme is gender equality and the right for everyone to get proper education no matter what race or background they have. In the Elflands, high society women are for babies, point. Maia is giving women a chance to pursue the things they want to pursue. When one of his step sisters asks why he helped her to study the stars, he answers “We were not considered worth educating, either.” I won’t lie: that one small sentence got to me. It really did.
1.5 stars. A frustrating read that felt equal parts directionless and boring.
I can't remember the last time I have been this frustrated with a book that I had have heard so much praise for. I'm a big fan of court intrigue, so mixed in a fantasy setting this seemed right up my alley. Unfortunately what I got was a meandering book with virtually zero tension, bizarre naming conventions, annoying verbiage, and boring characters.
Right from the get go this book annoys the reader. Quite literally every page there are many instances of people saying the word "serenity", as this is the formal title of the goblin emperor who is present every moment of the book. Every time someone speaks to him, they say "serenity" to start a comment, and "serenity" to end a comment. With a book that is 90% dialogue, this gets old fast. The characters also say "we" instead of "I", and while this is slightly interesting the first time you hear it, it becomes old after hearing it quite literally 1000+ times.
Outside of that, the pacing of this book is so ridiculously slow and meandering. Almost nothing exciting happens, and for a book that is about an emperor first beginning his rule and learning the in's/out's of running the show, you need a faster pace to keep this interesting. There is so much that the author could do to make things tense, but it just doesn't happen. Even the couple small moments of suspense are almost as quickly dashed away into monotony again.
The ending of the book was particularly weak and felt completely lackluster. I don't want to spoil anything, but it just sort of comes out of left field and wasn't particularly interesting anyways.
This almost shouldn't even be a fantasy books. The only thing remotely fantasy about this book si that there are goblins and elves, but if you simply changed the name of goblin to something like "English" and elves to "French" you wouldn't notice any difference because there is nothing fantasy oriented that differentiates these races from humans.
I also hated the naming conventions in this book. They are needlessly complicated and don't feel needed in the slightest. You have Csevet, Csethiro, Csoru, Setheris, Eshevis, Telimezh, and so on. These names are so foreign to the English language that it's hard to tell them apart and you are constantly having to remember who is talking.
The only reason I gave this book a 1.5 stars instead of 1 star was that I actually finished it, and I only use 1 stars for books that I gave up on. But ultimately, I wish I did give up on it.
2021 update: So I just finished the long-awaited sequel to this book, The Witness for the Dead, and it was good but not amazeballs, and I started wondering if this first book was really that much better or if I just was much less critical when I read this 7 years ago (which does happen, pretty frequently actually. I was a lot less critical of a reviewer back at the beginning of my reviewing hobby).
I'm happy to report that this is, in fact, truly a great fantasy novel! It's creative and immersive and thoughtful and all that good stuff. Maia is an intelligent and goodhearted protagonist who's flailing a little (or a lot) in a crazy situation not of his own making, and it makes for a fascinating story. Okay, yes, the names are still confusing. But that's a minor complaint. So read this if you haven't!!
Initial review: The Goblin Emperor is an unusual fantasy, but I really enjoyed it. Maia is the rejected and unloved 18 year old half-goblin son of the fourth wife of the emperor of the elves (I know his name sounds like a girl's name, and this description is starting to get complicated already, but stick with me here). Maia has been living in exile and isolation for years, but unexpectedly becomes the emperor when his father and three older half-brothers die in an accident. Suddenly Maia has to learn everything from the methods and processes of ruling to dancing and social skills. Maia is dealing with a truly severe case of self-doubt, but he's determined to do his best, and also to try to do what's right. Which is going to cause some ripples in an elven kingdom that already isn't at all certain that a goblin half-breed is the right emperor for them.
I had a few minor beefs: The names were terribly confusing--at least until I discovered the glossary in the back of the book when I was halfway through, after which point I read the rest of the book with one finger stuck in the glossary. The pacing of the story is ... maybe not quite slow, but deliberate. For better or worse, there's not a lot of action or romance: this is more of a tale of political intrigue and coming of age. Interestingly enough, there's also very little magic actually happening in this fantasy. What there is, is a lot of introspection on Maia's part as he tries to figure out how to be a good king and whether he even has it in himself to be one. It was fascinating to watch him learn how to relate to the characters around him, and to see his growth as a person and as a ruler.
But as soon as I finished it I had the urge to immediately start reading it again from the beginning, which is one of the two things that will generally get a book a 5 star rating from me even when it has weaknesses. (The other is when I immediately start looking up other books the author has written and considering which one to buy.) The worldbuilding is unusually strong and well thought out. Maia is a sympathetic and intelligent (if sometimes awkward) protagonist. If Addison writes a sequel, I'm there.
ETA: Katherine Addison has announced (in 2018) that she’ll be writing another book set in this world. Cheers!
The exiled half-blood son of an emperor's discarded fourth wife suddenly and unexpectedly inherits the throne after a terrible airship accident, and must scramble to find his feet in a Byzantine several-thousand-year-old elvish court. I adore the fact that this isn't a war story at all, for a wonderful, wonderful change, though it does have a nice murder mystery going on in the background at times.
It reminded me a lot of The King of Attolia, a favorite, with a bit of Gormenghast thrown in, some steampunk, and maybe some Dragonlance. This melange is made to work through the headspace of the main and sole-viewpoint character, Maia, which is a pretty congenial place to be for 400 or so pages.
I found the the fantasy neologisms and place and personal names were rather too thick on the page. Since I wasn't facing a quiz next period, I let them slide past my eye as undifferentiated word salad, possibly not the effect the author hoped for.
Brilliant cover art, apropos and very attractive. I am deeply envious.
ETA on re-re-read: still one of my favourite books!!!
This is one of those rare books, which I wanted to start re-reading right away after I finished.
The novel is a combination of political intrigue, coming of age and whodunnit with a positive outlook/outcome, where the majority of characters stays alive instead of dying cruel, overdramatic or unnecessary deaths.
Titanic wars & armageddon do not feature in the book either, so if you prefer dark, grim, action- and war-packed fantasy books where the world is hopelessly doomed, then you most probably won’t like The Goblin Emperor.
What I loved: - Maia, the protagonist. A shy, self-doubting, sensitive boy without real family and friends, kept in exile and isolation and treated with disdain and cruelty because he is half goblin. Then his father, the elf-emperor suddenly and unexpectedly dies in an accident with all his other sons, leaving Maia his heir and completely out of his depth. Maia stays a likeable MC throughout the book, despite his awkwardness & naivity. His quest for family, friendship and love & his coming into his own as a wise and successful emperor among the heartless political plotting, manoeuvring & vying for power is truly heartwarming and satisfying. It is great to see how he is learning to sail the dangerous waters of the court: who to trust / befriend / love / stand up to / dismiss among the multitude of relations, courtiers, politicians & servants that surround him. Maia is literally, figuratively & sometimes even unwittingly building bridges in his empire.
- The world building is fantastic. It is detailed, well built-up & credible as a whole, but especially the emperor’s court with all its political/economic/interpersonal system, laws & rules, administration and etiquette has been very well drawn.
- The political intrigue/whodunnit plot. The reader is learning about it together with Maia. It is like watching an intense and tense game of chess with all figures moving purposefully and eagerly awaiting the next step trying to figure out who is standing on which side.
The names are rather confusing and complicated (though it did not bother me any more on the 3rd re-read). It is hard to follow who is who and what and whether they are male / female even with the explanatory appendix at the end.
With such a detailed & precise world-building, a map of the empire, with its neighbouring countries & geography would come in handy. I would love to consult one while reading.
It is said that Samuel Richardson, after being hectored by readers and critics following the runaway success of his novel Clarissa (a success, one gathers from reading period chatter, due in large part to his witty villain Lovelace before his inevitable and lugubrious end), promised he would write about a good man.
So he gave the world Sir Charles Grandison, who was so firmly aware enough of his perfection that he converses lengthily to all and sundry between the busyness of kidnappings, abductions, defeating villains, etc. It’s interesting to me when reading reader reactions to these early novels that women seemed to enjoy Sir Charles more than men. Jane Austen, who had a very sharp eye for character in reality as well as in fiction, loved the novel so much she adapted it into a play.
I’m going to come back to that as I try to feel my way through my reactions, but first: The Goblin Emperor’s Maia is, from the beginning, to the end, a good person. We the reader can see that—the first sign comes early on when, on being thrust summarily aboard an airship after discovering he is now the emperor of the elves, he takes the time to look into the faces of the crew. But he doesn’t see himself as good. He is aware of his shortcomings, and his inward struggle is as profound as the outward struggle against the many forces arrayed against him.
At the start, the unwanted half-goblin fourth son is now emperor.
Previous to this, Maia survived ten years of his cousin’s brutal guardianship, and before that, eight years of his gentle, spiritual mother’s loving influence. Maia is utterly unprepared for any life, really: the little he was allowed to learn was beaten into him by Setheris, who made certain Maia had an understanding of the exigencies of law, and of court.
Maia’s first piece of luck is the probity of the courier who brought the news, Scevet . Maia relies on Scevet to help him navigate the dangers of a court that actively as well as covertly does not want Maia as emperor.
And so he must get himself crowned, get the dead buried, the cause of the accident investigated, and all the while deal with the inexorable press of responsibilities expected of an emperor. Kings
I like stories about kings. Kings are, well, kings. Sometimes I get tired of democratic pearl-clutching about adolescent fantasy and its preoccupation with kings. Guess what, there are kings in all forms in all literature. Human beings don’t do anything without their hierarchies. I’m less interested in reading about cubicle bosses or alphas at high school or arrogant pundits on the literary scene than I am in stories in which the trappings are colorful, and grace and style are part of the equation. There’s a better chance of that kind of story with kings.
But I lose interest fast if the kings don’t actually do any kinging. The weight of empire, the contradictions (the lack of privacy, and private time), the unending negotiation between balance and inertia, chaos and progress, those are some of the aspects I like about royal stories, and this one has got it right. Even the levels of language are not overlooked, or the several handwritings. These geeky details for the history buff give the world dimension.
This world is less magical than steam run. There are elves and goblins. The elves are Tolkien-pale, with beautiful hair and light eyes, but these are not Tolkien’s elves. They not only have pointed ears (stepping around the passionate sixties discussions of whether JRRT’s elves actually had pointed ears or not), but they are rather like dog or cat ears: they move, often reflecting emotions as well as responding to directional sound.
These elves were not Tolkien’s elves, nor were they the emotionally adolescent prettyboy elves of many eighties fantasies. They aren’t “elfpunk.” There is almost no music in this elfland, no particular emphasis on the natural world: if anything, the elves in their complicated stone edifices hearken back to Tolkien’s dwarves. As far as I could tell there is little euphony in their words or names, long as they are: the long names with their syllabic and prefix patterns instead suggest a long and complicated history. The elves seem to live human spans of life, and of course can breed with other races.
Their world evokes the late nineteenth century, undergoing technological and cultural change. Women in all the cultures seem to be bound to childbirth, at least at the upper levels of various societies. Wealth is based on the suffering of the poor working long hours in mines.
Maia sees no problem with women realizing their desires outside of cultural mandated babymaker. I think I would have looked askance at that—seen it as preaching to the choir—except that Maia’s own emotional makeup, as powerless victim of abuse, is his motivation for empathetic action and compassion. “We were not seen as worth educating either,” that is perhaps the quintessential comment of the nineteenth century female gaze; it represents anyone marginalized, which was, in the west, basically everyone who wasn’t a white heterosexual landowning male.
With reference to what I said above about Sir Charles, I think there could be an interesting wider discussion of male/female narrative gazes spinning off from this book, but I can see that this review is already long, so I think that that discussion will have to take place elsewhere.
Suffice it to say that the book begins slowly, as the weight of responsibility threatens to crush Maia, who already knows what it is to be crushed: as he begins to push back, things happen. The gradual acceleration of the pace left me suddenly at the end. The story resolves, but oh, was I disappointed to discover that there isn’t more, just because I want to spend more time in that world, and with those people.
In preparing to read the sequel, I decided I just had to re-read the original. It's been a while and I remembered it being comforting and comfortable for all the potentially harrowing setup that it represented.
The re-read confirms it. It's subtle, careful, heartbreaking, and a good mystery, all wrapped up in a cloak of humility. Odd, that. And, of course, the exploration of racism is quite clear.
That goblin was just the sweetest child emperor I've ever known. He was always courteous and polite, even when he was abducted. He was so centered and contained even during that time he almost took the knife of that assassin. Do you remember his name? Yeah. That windbag elf. Well, I don't care what any of his peers say about this dear child. He's looking forward to the future, I tell you! He even says goodbye to the cleaning staff of his late mother, bless his soul.
This novel, in case you haven't guessed, is a delightful take on normal people raising an Emperor. It is NOT, however, a tale of war, oppression, or magic. There's plenty of intrigues, but mainly it's a coming of age with a very healthy dose of fish out of water syndrome. On a personal note, it was charming and well paced and very, very political. It had elements of stab you in the back, of course, but the focus was mainly on trying to do a good job in a situation where no one seems to trust you. Believe me, I was very charmed.
This delightful novel was part of this year's Hugo nominations, and in spite of the controversy, I'm reading each novel deeply and seriously because I respect and cherish the Hugos. Anyone nominated will carry prestige because we, the readers, want it to be so. The moment we start devaluing the award in our own minds is the moment we lose a little light in our life.
As for being a contender, this novel definitely is. If I read this outside of the controversy or the nomination, I would still be gibbering and drooling about it, because, after all, it turns our archetypal conventions over to cook more evenly.
The writing is clear, the story is suspenseful, and the mystery around his father's death and his own assassination attempt keep everything moving nicely. Most importantly, I felt real sympathy for our dear Emperor. If you think that the story is short on wonder or depth, think again. Everything is vividly imagined and deeply drawn, down to the airships or the clockwork bridge or the guard who sang our young Emperor to sleep.
This novel is a breath of fresh air with a huge heart, and that's saying a lot for a novel about a goblin.
We, Mayim de Vries, first of this name, have a confession to make. For a long time we have needlessly hesitated before reading the Goblin Emperor feeding on our superstitions. Mainly, do to the fact that when we hear “goblin” we see either this:
While the phrase “goblin king” brings only this picture in our imperial mind:
We apologise. We behaved ungraciously and based on ill premises, which we should not have inflicted on this fine book. We should have not disparaged its quality based on a title and frolics of our imagination.
We are sorry. We are, not only because main protagonist, a mixed blood of elven and goblin kind, is more akin to the dark elf than anything else, but also because the book itself is such a rare, underrated treasure.
We commend our friend Osmerrem Athenaran for her dedication and her patient zeal and we thank her for writing this incredible review that witnesses truthfully and with honour all the merits of the Goblin Emperor in words much more appropriate than would have been albe to utter.
The Goblin Emperor is everything that The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms should have been but never had the chance. Alas, if you find yourself impervious to court intricacies, political intrigues, and cultural density of truly inhuman quality, instead being interested mainly in fast entertainment build on predictable plot twists and emotional upheaval, better leave the book alone, lest you taste disappointment.
Truth to be told, we found the book a trifle confusing and we fear other reads may feel similar bafflement due to a huge amount of names, offices and functions thrown at them in the first chapters. Here, the priceless reading habit of our imperial mother comes handy. You should know that she starts reading a book from the end. And it so happens that the Goblin Emperor has a very useful Handbook for Travelers in the Elflands as an appendix to the proper story, which in fact should be read first as a preface or an introduction enabling the reader to familiarise themselves with the incredibly rich social texture of the Elflands. It is especially handy as it contains A Listing of Persons, Places, Things, and Gods this making it easier to follow the tale.
We sincerely hope you shall accept our apology and read the book at your earliest convenience. We should like that. In fact, we should like that very much.
You can also investigate The Cemeteries of Amalo spinoff series:
When I finished The Goblin Emperor, I was sad there wasn’t more of it. Is there higher praise?
The things other people have critiqued do make sense: the fact that is very much character-driven rather than plot driven; the plethora of names and titles to get used to; the language stuff which may superficially appear just gimmicky and faux-archaic; the fact that Maia is often reacting rather than being proactive. Me, though, I loved it, for all of those things and more. For example, the thee/thou stuff was annoying me until someone pointed out to look closer: normally people who use thee/thou don’t get that it’s an informal form of address (presumably at least partly because of the ubiquity of the Lord’s Prayer, which uses that address for God) and so for someone who is familiar with Old and Middle English and French like me, it becomes very annoying to have people addressing their king as if he were their equal or inferior. Here, however, the pronouns are all intentional. If a character uses the first person plural, most often they are actually being formal; if they then drop into using ‘I’, then they are speaking as a private person, among friends. It’s worth watching what Addison does with pronouns, because when they change, you know something’s up. In a way, the conflict between I/we is a central part of Maia’s character and his relationships.
When it comes to the invented language, it’s a little more difficult. You end up with various forms of address depending on marital status and rank, and there are suffixes which alter names according to number and gender. This is something we’re just not used to dealing with in English these days, and it can make it very difficult to keep track of a character as they switch spheres and are referred to in different ways. There is actually a helpful section in the back, which is probably easier to refer to if you’re reading it in dead tree, which explains all of these things if it’s something you’re interested in. For me, I liked puzzling it out, and context often helped.
(From this point in the review, there are some minor spoilers!)
But all that could be there and interesting and it wouldn’t have made me care about the book like the central character did. People are right to talk about the massive contrast with “grimdark” fantasy; Maia is pretty unambiguously good, and though he may sometimes feel angry, or vengeful, he tries to be fair and not to use his newfound rank to punish those who have done him wrong. He has plenty of opportunity, he has the right, but he holds himself back. He cares about his social inferiors and servants, and though he was never trained to be emperor, never expected to be emperor, he gives himself to the role without reserve. I loved him and the characters around him, loved the moments when he pushed the boundary by apologising to them or showing concern, and the moments in return where they took a more personal interest in him. I wanted to see more of his closest guards, especially Cala, but the public/private formal/informal boundaries prevent that; we just get glimpses. I loved the moment where Cala buttons up Maia’s sleeve for him to hide the marks of abuse, the way Beshelar reacts.
I enjoyed that Addison evaded some things that would’ve spoilt my enjoyment. For example, Maia gets a crush on an opera singer, and yet there’s no seduction, no abuse of his power over her or vice versa. When she offers to have a ‘closer relationship’ with him, in a personal sense you want Maia to say yes, because it may make him happy — but because of the situation, you want Maia to remain the person he is, reluctant to abuse his role, and it’s a relief when he does. Addison shows Maia struggling with the role, but never betraying it or himself. I love that, I love that we’re not expected to forgive him a betrayal of his self because shiny happy love or something.
In terms of female characters, it’s interesting, because it’s set in a proto-medieval type world (though the religion implied at is somewhat Buddhist, with meditation taking a key role for Maia) and women are marginalised, but they’re not happy with it, and nor are all the men around them. There are educated women, women who pursue their skills and interests, women who are not afraid to defend their rights, their children, and in Maia’s fiancée’s case, her husband! Even one of Maia’s guards is, in the end, a woman. While I think the proto-medieval-Europe thing can be overdone, and there are shades of it here, Addison goes further than others in showing that world changing. For example, Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne is ostensibly set in the world where women are given freedoms, educated, political, etc, and yet not one of them chooses to take an unambiguously unfeminine role — we don’t see female warriors, there remains a definite line between the roles of the sexes. Addison blurs that, shows it in the process of blurring, which I enjoyed very much.
When I say that I’m sad there isn’t more of this, it’s not because the story is incomplete. Of course, Maia’s life goes on afterwards, but I don’t want more because I need to know what happens next, or because there’s anything unsatisfying about it. I want more because I love the world, love engaging with Addison’s characters and figuring out her world, and I think there’s plenty more there for her to play with if she chooses. This is a book I’m sure I’m going to reread — I could almost just start it again right now, which is very rare for me. There are few fiction books I engage with on this level of looking for language, history, figuring out customs and conventions. It’s not on the same level as Tolkien, who spent a lifetime refining his world, but there is a complexity here which I really love.
4.5 stars. Sometimes a book may not be perfect but it's exactly what you need at the moment, and this book was so delightful and charming that it was exactly what I needed in a 2021 that's competing to hold 2020's beer. Low on action and magic, long on very human palace intrigue, a linguist's nerdy dream (I am not a linguist so it was more my chagrin, but I get the appeal) and just sort of enchanting overall.
As I mentioned above, I did struggle with the names and titles and often could not keep character's straight which was annoying but not a mood killer. The worldbuilding felt a bit uneven - so much time and energy spent on language, for example, but very little on location and culture outside of that so that I didn't have a great sense of where the elves were vs the goblins vs the smaller places or even that dang river that was at issue (a map would have been much appreciated). And I would have loved to spend more time on what little magic system was there because it sounded fascinating. I hear a sequel is coming soon, so let's hope it does just that.
I know I have a few complaints and this book may not be for everyone, but I truly did love it. I also sped through it in 48 hrs and when I did put it down, couldn't wait to pick it back up, again. Highly recomend.
"'We consider it cruel,' Maia said. 'And we do not think that cruelty is ever just.'"
Spoilers follow, and a mention of abuse.
So What's It About? (from Goodreads)
"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."
What I Thought
Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a dragon's hoard of Elf Boys that I would die for. After the first few pages of this book, I was already entirely certain that Maia was going to join the ranks - he is simply one of the most precious, wonderful characters I've ever had the pleasure to read about. There are few characters that I can unabashedly say that I love, and he is now one of them. He is a sweet, kind person who is determined to be good to others around him, and over the course of the novel he overcomes his shyness and insecurity, coming into his own and learning how to better exist in a demanding new world. I loved seeing him grow in capability and self-confidence, and I think the fundamental message is that goodness is ultimately rewarded with goodness in kind, that his unpretentious, genuine way of relating with others around him does truly make a difference. It's an incredibly comforting, cathartic, hopeful thing to read.
I loved seeing characters gradually come to look past the title of Emperor to come to know Maia for who he truly is and begin to care for him for the wonderful person he is, and it helps that all of the other characters are just as well-written and interesting, from Setheris to Cala and Celehar. The relationship with Setheris is especially interesting, as the formerly abusive guardian figure is suddenly at the utter mercy of the boy that he tormented and despised for years. Not going to lie, this particular aspect of the story is also incredibly cathartic, and I really understood Maia's choice to put aside the temptation of revenge, instead arranging circumstances in order to simply be free from Setheris's influence over his life.
The setting is beautifully realized, opulent and fascinating, but herein lies my main struggle with The Goblin Emperor: the sheer number of incredibly difficult elf names to remember, from courtiers to government members, parts of the world and parts of the government. There is a glossary in the back that was really helpful, and the rest I usually managed to figure out using context clues. Is it just me, or am I getting better and better at understanding complex fantasy world-building?
The Steampunk setting is an interesting one, and I have to say that it stands out among the crowd of Steampunk that I've previously read because it manages to make the world all its own while looking past the cool asethetics to get to the heart of what makes the Victorian/industrial setting so fascinating and ripe for exploration: the social tumult and instability and the rapid changes leading to tension and uncertainty. To talk a little more about that, it's time for the next section!
Part of what makes me love Maia as much as I do is the fact that he is so acutely aware of and empathetic about the plight of people who do not have power in society or are treated as lesser-than, having known this from his own experiences before becoming emperor. This shows in his relationship with his sister Vedero - he refuses to force her into marriage, instead encouraging her to continue in her pursuit of astronomy. The women in this book are all women who fight to find a place for themselves in a patriarchal world, from his fiancee Ceredin who swordfights and speaks her mind to Vedero and her scholar friends determined to find a place for women outside marriage and motherhood, the woman who was overlooked for the honor of becoming his personal guard until Maia chooses her and the opera singer who tries to use Maia's crush on her to get him to learn about her sister's plans for a bridge. Maia respects and understands them in a way that his father did not.
The last thing that I want to discuss in this section is the group of people behind the bombing that leads to Maia's reign. I would have loved to see this bit of world-building developed in more detail, and it would have been interesting to learn about the experiences of other progressives who do not turn to terrorism to pursue their goals. Maia has a really interesting conversation with the man who developed the plan - he felt that radical action was the only solution to the oppression that people faced under the previous emperor, and that the deaths he caused were worth it just for the fact that they put Maia in charge, as someone who is an outsider and has already brought change to the position of emperor. I would have liked this plot to be fleshed out more, and to have further addressed the inherent flaws of a system that places so much power into the hands of one man, chosen for his blood instead of his capabilities.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Despite the generally great ratings & reviews of this book, and its recent Nebula nomination, this book did not bring ‘it’ in many categories.
The good: Maia, the new emperor, is a great character. Despite his lack of confidence, he performs admirably in his new job with the help of his secretary, Csevet.
The not-so-good: The world. I’ve seen in some places this book be called a ‘fantasy of manners’. I suppose there are readers who would be interested in this kind of thing but it’s definitely not for me. There are blocks of text devoted to dressing the emperor, or the correct way to reply to a letter, or the various divisions in the government. In some books this is presented in an interesting way, but here, the reader has to read dry text that describes what is going on. Also in this category (I think) is the very specific naming conventions used in the social hierarchy which can be quite daunting at times. And could it have hurt anyone to put a map in the book. I’m sure it’s more work than I realize but it would be appreciated. (There is a map on the author’s website but its hand-drawn and hard to read in areas)
The bad: The plot. I don’t like going deep into plot in my reviews but the lack of planning with the conspiracies in this novel needs to be addressed. It was sloppy work all around. Even the nefarious plots that do work suffer from poor execution. They are an amazing example of ineptitude. There are various subplots (marriages, funerals, etc) but they all turn out pretty good. They probably had better planners than the conspirators.
Its not a bad book but it wasn’t for me. I feel as if my opinions will not parallel those of the Sword & Laser book club, and anxiously await their opinions.
Not quite 5 stars, but I'm rounding up for the deftness of the writing.
This isn't fantasy in the traditional sense. It's fantasy in the Guy Gavriel Kay sense, or what I come to think of as "very little magic" high fantasy, and I find myself preferring this kind of fantasy over the elaborate magic-system-based fantasies because there's more focus on the characters, their individual stories, and the histories and current events of these made-up worlds, rather than a detailed or complex magical system.
Although there is a little mysticism in this story, there's no magic and no magic system, and the mysticism happens mostly off scene. And although there are elves and goblins, they're not magical creatures; they're just two opposing groups of people within this world. There's no grand adventure or quest or journey. All of the action is confined to the imperial court. And the main character isn't a chosen one--he's just the last one (in the line of succession).
The titular Goblin Emperor is Maia, a forgotten half-goblin son of the previous elvish emperor who died unexpectedly in an airship accident, along with his heir and other sons. Maia's ascent to the throne is an unsettling surprise to everyone in the court and all across the elven lands; it's even a surprise to himself. There's always friction and tension within any court, but Maia's presence heightens the levels at this court even more, to the point of a coup. The rest of the story is about one lone goblin boy not only surviving, but holding his own against an entire elvish court that makes no qualms about hating and resenting him for what he is--half-goblin and the one never meant for the throne.
Although I liked this book very much the first time through, I loved it this time around. All the little things that got in the way, that made the beginning a slog, a year ago fell away, and I was able to really get into the story and appreciate all its intricacies, nuances, and depths of storytelling. It was such a smooth read that I lost myself in this world nearly completely, and the experience was amazing.
I went with the audiobook this time around, and it made a world of difference. This was the rare instance in which the narrator made the story, instead of broke it, and my immense enjoyment was mostly because of the brilliant reading by Kyle McCarley.
This thing had a stick up its butt for the first 100 pages, removed it for about a hundred, and then poured a bag of saccharine all over itself and solemnly marched about to the tune of the Emperor’s New Clothes for the rest. After a hugely deceptive start with a charming intro of a language guide- yeah you heard me, super Strange & Norrell mischievous footnote vibes- it suddenly got Very Impressed with its own world building and took itself extremely seriously for way way too long. And while I am as much of a linguistics nerd as I think anyone outside the field can probably stand to be, family names and a culture using the royal we does not a compelling narrative make. I excuse a lot from exposition sections in the same way I do tv pilots, but man this was tedious. Maia’s status as poor orphaned Oliver Twist did little to touch me because it was resolved too soon and never really made to feel real. The Elfin court is not mysterious and labyrinth as I was hoping, but full of boring meetings and an endless subplot about a bridge that won’t end. This author is a classic Won’t Kill My Darlings, but given that 21st century twist where she also won’t morally compromise main characters either. You are eeeevvvillllllll or good or delusional/crazy- those are your options here. After an actually successful joke by Maia woke me up almost exactly on pg 100 he kept it up with the relatable humanity for another hundred pages or so and then got swallowed up by world building again. The last part of this draaaaaggggggeeedddddd. Not least because all suspense was taken out of everything at all times. Good People Win Because Small Acts of Kindness Karma Be Nice Kids and No Worries Maia is Perfect. I just.... fine, but also I’m bored? One of my danger signs of a failing novel is if I’d rather leave the room and follow minor characters around than stay with the MC. Oh man so many in this book! Cala, #1. Kiru the lady mage who was made a big deal of and then disappeared. That Marquess dude and his BFF the snooty but nice House of Lords stand-ins- I’d watch that sitcom. So kudos for the secondary character ideas! But no one is there long enough for me to focus on- instead I keep winding up with Maia who keeps failing upwards or being blessed with magical statesmanlike instincts after a life of abused isolation and god knows he’ll pull it out of his ass every time and I’m so booorreeeddd. Guys, I majored in European history, I devour bowls of popcorn in front of all the courtly intrigue filled biographies there are, I have been an epic fantasy fan for two decades. This should so be my jam on so many levels and it is not. What is with the high ratings on this one? I held out on it for years to see if the star average would go down and it didn’t and so I ordered it and I don’t get it. What are you guys seeing that I’m missing?
You know how sometimes (frequently) when you read lost heir stories, the lost heir is a peasant who can’t read and doesn’t even know who the current king is, much less understands how a constitutional monarchy works? And then two weeks later, he’s been crowned king! And the only problem is a mustache-twirling usurper (or else, war! – but that’s always pretty easy to deal with) who can easily be handled by just killing him or throwing him in a dungeon.
This is not that book.
In The Goblin Emperor, the fourth son of the king (half-goblin in a world where the nobility is entirely elven, raised in seclusion in the middle of a marsh) becomes king and finds that the things he has to deal with include: the investigation of the death of his father and half-brothers; marriage negotiations; dealing with a family of sisters and stepmothers and nieces and nephews who he’s never met before and all seem to want things out of him; parliament; his council of advisors (who he’d also never met before); international relationships; court politics; the growing rights for women movement; and a society that’s dealing poorly with the fact that it seems to be entering an age of technological development. That’s besides the fact that he’s grown up living in isolation in a marsh so he doesn’t really know how to talk to people, and it turns out that’s important to being emperor.
I find invented-world court politics fascinating, especially when they’re done as well as they are in this book.
On a trip to China a few years ago, I got to visit the Forbidden City in Beijing. Surrounded by such a display of magnificent splendor and so much opulence, I wouldn't be surprised if the whole tour group was thinking the same thing: how wonderful it must have been to be emperor, to be the son of heaven and have your word be law, all the luxury in the world at your fingertips and an army servants to cater to your every whim.
What would it be like to live a modest life, then to be suddenly elevated to such a position? The premise of The Goblin Emperor explores this very idea, following the life of the youngest, half-goblin son the the Elven emperor, a youth named Maia who has lived his entire life as a cast-off, far away from the business and affairs of the Imperial Court. But when his father and three older brothers all perish in an airship accident, being the next in line in the royal succession, Maia is plucked from exile to take his rightful place on the throne.
But for our protagonist, palace life and being emperor is not about the glamorous parties or eating fancy food and wearing fancy clothes. The Imperial Court is a whole new world for Maia, and his inexperience with running an empire is proving to be the least of his worries. Having been mostly forgotten in his exile, he arrives at the palace to find himself with no friends, no allies, and not even a clue as to how an emperor is supposed to act. Everyone seems to want something, and distinguishing obsequious flattery from genuine kindness is nigh impossible. Add to that, the airship crash than claimed the lives of his father and brothers turns out to have been no accident, and whoever assassinated the last emperor might be coming after Maia next.
Suddenly, being emperor does not sound like such a cushy idea anymore. The Goblin Emperor explores the role of a supreme ruler, but rather than focus on the glitz, Katherine Addison decides instead to paint a picture of uncertainty, frustration, and abject loneliness. Though he is surrounded by people at all times, Maia has no one to turn to and knows not who to trust.
And yet, the story also puts forward hope. Viewed as a character study, the book offers a unique perspective as well as a fascinatingly immersive experience. Maia is someone you can root for, and despite his moments of sadness and self-doubt, he possesses amazing strength at his core. A survivor of a horrible childhood who goes from being ignored to being the most important person in the empire, everything that happens affects and changes Maia, but his actions and feelings are always and ever guided by the goodness in his heart. There's something to be said about a character who can forgive past cruelties and betrayal, and instead look to the future with optimism and a mind to mend fences and build bridges. As the story progresses, the nature of Maia's relationships with others as well as his own reflections of himself begin to evolve, and that's when the depth of his character really shines through. Who needs glitz?
Clearly, so much care and thought went into the writing of this book. If I could make one suggestion to the prospective reader, flip to the end of The Goblin Emperor to familiarize yourself with the naming conventions as well as pronunciation of words in the Elflands before tackling this book. Someone gave me the same advice and it was a huge help. Otherwise, a lot of the similar sounding names and complicated forms of addresses might prove confusing. It still took me some time to get used to the language and style, but at least knowing some information beforehand made it much less overwhelming.
Powerful and touching, The Goblin Emperor is a strong entry into the high fantasy genre. I loved the world building, including Addison's inventive approach to elves and goblins as well as the intrigues of the Imperial Court. It's a setting rife with plots, politics, and power-plays, though most of this is handled at a much more subtle, muted pace. As such, this won't be a book for everyone, but readers who enjoy a more in-depth look into character portrayal and the setting will find plenty to love here. Highly recommended for fantasy fans looking for an introspective read and those who enjoy layers of complexity in their characters.
This was an enjoyable read. The story was engaging despite not being all that exciting. This was a character driven fantasy that mainly focused on court intrigue.
Maia, who is half goblin, has spent his entire life living in an isolated country estate. First being looked after by his mother and then his banished cousin after his mother died. As the outcast fourth son he was largely ignored and forgotten by the court and his cruel neglectful father. An accident on an airship changes all this as the Emperor and his three eldest sons are killed. Maia is recalled to court to take his place as Emperor.
This story chronicled his rise from a naive boy who was intimidated by his lack of social skills and education into a fairly benevolent ruler. I liked the way Maia slowly developed as a character. He was a genuinely good guy, but felt like a realistic enough character. He was lonely and intimidated in the early stages buy grew more confident in his own decisions as he gained more knowledge and experience. He was no superman. He needed time and help to solve his problems.
The Elvish court was not always welcoming to Maia and he had to fight off a few plots to overthrow him as emperor. I enjoyed this aspect of the story. The motivations of those plotting against him were well explained and easily understood.
This book was not without faults. The pacing was a bit slow and the Elvish and Goblin names were a nightmare. They were too similar. I also felt like the racial tensions between the Goblins and Elves was more hinted at than fully explored.
Despite being set in a fantasy world and being a story about Goblins and Elves this could have been a coming of age tale for any young royal in a historical setting. The characters were very human in their emotions and actions and while magic was hinted at it played almost no part in the story.
Rating: 4 stars.
Audio Note: This was narrated by Kyle McCarley. I thought he was a perfect fit for the formal language of the story.
This is a charming tale of an unprepared young man, launched into a world that would be daunting even if he had been trained for it. Exiled by his father, abused by his guardian, disregarded and despised by everyone but his mother, Maia must find his way in a court that is complicated, unforgiving, and hostile.
I appreciated some of the real world concerns that found their way into this work of fantasy: the issue of skin colour, the status of women, the ways that people treat one another as “lesser than.” I also enjoyed the steampunk details included in the book.
Although there is violence—it begins with the airship explosion that kills the Emperor and the three sons ahead of Maia for the throne after all—this is not a novel about war, battle or force. This is a tale about kindness conquering all and about how much it matters who the man or woman at the top of the hierarchy is. Years ago, I was involved in a large organization as a volunteer when said organization hired a man of dubious reputation as CEO. Rumour had it that he had quit the last executive position before sexual harassment charges could catch up with him. Soon, all the women in our organization were on high alert and knew to never be alone with this creep. Eventually even the men on staff figured things out and finally Mr. Creepy CEO was turfed, but the organization continues to suffer from the years he spent at the helm. One of my male friends told me that he had always considered that it really didn’t matter who was at the top of the heap, that he just ignored that detail and did his job—until this situation, when he realized that company culture really does emanate downwards from the person in charge.
Having said all of that, Maia demonstrates that the Golden Rule is an excellent way to run one’s life or one’s kingdom—do unto others as you would have them do unto you. He doesn’t win every encounter by practicing this philosophy, but by unflinchingly attempting to be fair, to really listen to people and to care, he shows the qualities of a real leader.
Two criticisms, both to do with names: one, Maia to me sounds like a female name and it bugged me attached to a male character. Two, there were too many very complicated names. If the names had dissimilar or if there had been fewer characters, I might have had a hope of keeping them straight. As it was, when one turned out to be important, I had to backtrack a bit and figure out exactly who they were. Otherwise, I just treated them as background wallpaper and didn’t try to distinguish one from another—and this despite the fact that I am usually good with names and that fictional names actually matter a great deal to me.
Despite the naming issues, I enjoyed this book very much and in fact stayed up much too late one evening to finish it. I am still trying to catch up on sleep, but The Goblin Emperor was worth it.
Recommended to me by Leonardo, on Goodreads, and some "best fantasy books” lists. As I understand it, he hasn’t actually read it, but plans to. Honestly, I wouldn’t bother.
Synopsis: A half goblin, half elf boy, son of the elven emperor, is astonished to discover that, since his father and all his brothers have died in an accident, he’s the heir to the throne. He goes to the palace where he meets lots of people and watches some things happening.
Overall enjoyment: I tried very hard, but just couldn’t like it. Every time I try to come up with a redeeming quality, I almost immediately shoot it down. It was just boring and badly written.
Plot: There isn’t one. It’s a bunch of stuff that happens, one after the other, and almost unconnected. And even those small plots are boring, ridiculously incongruent, obvious, and badly made.
Characters: Again, bleh. The only character with some depth is Maia himself; all the others are two- or one-dimensional profoundly stupid beings. You can tell right away who is good and who is bad depending on if they are warmly welcoming to him or if they look at him with pure hatred. His enemies are so stupid it’s a wonder they manage to get anything done; you can see right through every one of their plots, and I believe my grandmother could have come up with better plans for assassinating the emperor. And she has Alzheimer’s. The good characters are good just because they are. And despite being marginally better written, Maia is also a very badly developed character. He’s very inconsistent, being a political genius and infinitely wise in one chapter and naive boy who probably still believes in Santa and would sign contracts against the presents he would bring. He’s so pusillanimous; nothing in the story happens because of him, he only watches while things happen.
World/setting: I was hoping this could be a redeeming quality, but, sadly, it’s not. It’s simply a badly constructed world. She did put some work into it, but all in the wrong places. You have no idea how the society works, she completely ignores the day to day life of people, but she gives excruciatingly detailed descriptions of formalities and rituals among the nobles. And they’re not even useful formalities, they are not metaphors of how the society works, or significant to the plot, characters or ideas; they’re just whimsical empty gestures designed to give the impression of a culture. She invents terms and titles and just dumps them on the reader’s lap without any explanation. Plus, her choices of what to describe really leave something to be desired; she keeps building up expectations, saying how wonderful, amazing, extraordinary and impressive things are and then, when the character finally sees this thing, they will assure the reader that it really is and not describe it at all (in the meantime, the reader will know every meal and every piece of clothing in the area around in detail). This world was supposed to have steampunk elements, and indeed there is mention of a few steam-powered engines and such, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the story and could have been removed without loss (the book probably would have been better, because it would be shorter). It feels like she only included them as an afterthought, so her book would be considered steampunk.
Writing style: I don’t it. Very obscure, almost like she’s purposefully trying to make her text more difficult to read. The pronouns seem like an unnecessary affectation (much like almost everything in this book). She will travel wildly in time and space in the same chapter (sometimes even the same paragraph), without any warning.
Representation: There was an attempt, with the goblins being dark skinned and suffering some prejudice from it and a few homosexual relationships, it’s very badly worked (or not at all). Just like with the steampunk, it feels like she only included them so that it would be there.
Political correctness: This book is a goddamn train wreck. All the characters are stereotypes. She’s very bad on her treatment of women: there are very few, and those are very stupid or absolutely motherly. But then, the male characters are very badly written too, so that’s probably not sexism.
Up next: The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls JL 740
I see now why people refer to The Goblin Emperor as a “feel good” book.
I’ve been wanting to read this since it came out. Many of my peers were raving about it and I even got a personalized recommendation for it. When NetGalley offered a promotional audiobook copy for review, I jumped aboard without hesitation.
Overall, I think my expectations might have been a little high because, while I enjoyed the book, it didn’t blow me away. It’s incredibly character-driven, focusing solely on a half-goblin’s experience as he dons the crown and tries to manage life at court. Every time he dared break social protocol to be kind to someone was satisfying, and I believe that’s a large part of why people enjoyed the story so much. It’s incredibly straightforward, yet the simplicity is very much part of its charm. Unfortunately, I found myself craving a bit more substance.
I can usually roll with stories that don’t have external plot as a main driving force – some of my favorite books in fantasy focus more on the slow-burn relationship development between characters (I don’t mean of the romantic variety), but in this case, where the entire framework was navigating the politics of this court, there wasn’t a whole lot going on. If politics are going to be the focus, I want them to be exciting, intricate, and just complex enough that I’m on my toes but don’t feel completely lost. All of the politicking in Goblin Emperor was simple. Leaving me with nothing to sink my teeth into other than how much I appreciated the main character.
The audio production itself was fantastic. Addison’s prose is very formal, with characters referring to themselves as “we” and each other as “thou,” and included a whole lot of pomp and circumstance (such as addressing the main character as “Serenity” every other sentence). Narrator Kyle McCarley has an accent that fit the spirit of her writing perfectly. He also did a great job bringing out the hesitancy and quirkiness of all the characters. Almost all of the names are mouthfuls, and I’m not sure they lent themselves well for the audiobook. It was a real struggle at the beginning to tell everyone apart, but this is one case where the simplicity of the plot works in its favor because it made it easier to sort everyone out eventually.
Recommendations: if you’re in the mood for a simple, feel-good story and don’t mind the lack of a strong overall plot, this is a great pick. If fantasy had a “take to the beach” category, Goblin Emperor would be in it. I loved the charm of the characters and the overall warm energy of the story.
I’d like to thank Macmillan Audio, Katherine Addison, and NetGalley for the chance to listen to and review this new audiobook adaptation of Goblin Emperor!
“In our inmost and secret heart, which you ask us to bare to you, we wish to banish them as we were banished, to a cold and lonely house, in the charge of a man who hated us. And we wish them trapped there as we were trapped.”
“You consider that unjust, Serenity?”
“We consider it cruel,” Maia said. “And we do not think that cruelty is ever just.”
“The Goblin Emperor” while part of a series, is a standalone political steampunk fantasy novel. The plot follows Maia Drazhar, who due to a political marriage between Emperor Varenechibel the Fourth of the Elflands and Princess Chenelo of Barizhan, is born a half-goblin prince. After the death of his mother, his father relegates him to Edonomee, unwanted and scorned, under the care of his bitter, abusive guardian Setheris.
One night, months from his nineteenth birthday, Maia is awoken to receive terrible news. The Wisdom of Choharo has crashed, taking with it the lives of several people including Emperor Varenechibel the Fourth, Prince Nemolis, Archduke Nazhira, and Archduke Ciris. Maia Drazhar, uneducated, untrained and inexperienced, is now Emperor of the Elflands.
Thrust into the Untheileneise Court, Maia struggles to come to terms with his new life and his new responsibilities. There are rules he must follow, laws and policies he is unaware of and customs he must come to terms with. He’s lived a lonely childhood and being Emperor, surrounded constantly by people, proves to be even more so.
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.
Maia has not had it easy. With a deceased mother, a neglectful father and living with an abusive guardian in a faraway home where he has no one to interact with, he’s shy, awkward and avoids conflict at all cost. To a point, one would call him innocent and innocence has no place in the viper nest that is the home of the Emperor. He has to deal with prejudice due to him being half-goblin, disdain due to his ignorance of complex politics and betrayal from those close to him. But it is because of his kind nature that brings people, especially those who serve him, to swear their loyalty.
His closest friends, though an Emperor cannot have friends, are his secretary Csevet Aisava and his nohecharei, his guards, Deret Beshelar, Lieutenant of the Untheileneise Guard and Cala Athmaza of the Adremaza.
Maia knew—everyone knew—about the emperor’s nohecharei, the guardians sworn to die before they would allow harm to come to him: one, the soldier, to guard with his body and the strength of his arm; the other, the maza, to guard with his spirit and the strength of his mind.
“The Goblin Emperor'' is purely character driven and watching Maia grow from feeling insecure and an outcast due to Setheris treatment of him and how unknowledgeable he was of both of his cultures, to the Emperor who thinks of his people and is kind to them yet commands respect, is enough to bring a tear to even the stony Beshelar. Seriously, the birthday scene had me tearing up.
“Yes,” Csevet agreed. “But, Serenity, you have also gifts from a number of Barizheisei merchants in Cetho, and from the Trade Association of the Western Ethuveraz. There are messages from mayors and hierophants in every principality. The people of Nelozho have sent you a letter with nearly five hundred signatures, which must be the entire population. The crew of the Radiance of Cairado have sent you a model airship. The families of the crew of the Wisdom of Choharo have sent you message after message. And that doesn’t even begin to account for—Serenity?”
“We don’t understand,” Maia said helplessly, sinking into a chair. “What do they want?”
Csevet frowned. “They want you to have a happy birthday.”
The Goblin Emperor is not a book I would recommend easily. There is no fantastical plot of overthrowing the evil empire or saving the world from destruction. It’s simply a story of a kind-hearted man with no training or experience, learning to wade through court politics as well as trying to keep his gentle heart. As Maia's motto goes: “We do not think that cruelty is ever just.”
Also, if you read this line “He regretted the bridges he had not built—his brother Nemolis, for one.” and kept thinking ‘what if?’ then please do yourself a favour and read A Nuisance Though Thou Art. It’s an alternative universe fanfic where baby Maia gets to meet his big brother Nemolis who is the best big brother to ever big brother. It’s so soft and all that baby Maia deserved.
But he did not forget, and told himself he would not forget, that it was possible for people to be kind without ulterior motive, that sometimes bargaining was not necessary.
I could have done with less of the unpronounceable and unspellable names and places (Edrahasivar, Varenechibel, the Untheileneise, etc.); elaborate rituals, and endless descriptions of dress and costume , as in the following passage:
"Maia suffered himself to be adorned. Rings for his fingers, silver set with jade and moonstones, bracelets like manacles, silver set with dull cabochon emeralds; a series of rings for his ears, more pale green jade; a necklace of moonstones and cabochon emeralds that clasped tight around his throat; a silver and moonstone diadem."
I think the story hides behind the endless arcane descriptions, impossible names, etc. These things don't really enhance the novel, but detract from it. They're fluff, not substance.
But I can't entirely dismiss the book. It's still moving and involving, because of its main character, Maia (a.k.a. Edrahasivar). At bottom, this is a coming of age story, based on the usual tropes. Abused and reviled child grows up and makes good.
Maia, a grey skinned elf/goblin hybrid, is exiled by his father, the cruel and capricious Emperor Varenechibel, because he (Maia's father) is forced into a political marriage with Maia's mother, Chenelo, a woman Maia's father doesn't love.
Maia is raised in exile by his abusive cousin.
But then the entire royal family is killed in an airship accident and Maia's the only relative left alive. So, by default and to everyone's surprise, he becomes the Goblin Emperor, Edrahasivar the Seventh.
Maia/Edrahasivar's character is what drives the story. In contrast to the usual fantasy royalty, he isn't cruel, evil, ruthless, and self-serving. On the contrary, he is kind, compassionate, decent, and ethical.
He also confounds the expectations of others. Although his education has been spotty, he isn't stupid. In fact, he proves to be rather brilliant at statecraft. He builds bridges (literally and figuratively). He brings new ideas and viewpoints to the job of being Emperor.
He's not a pushover. People think he might be weak, because, as Gene Wolfe says, the world believes that "courtesy is weakness". Maia repeatedly demonstrates his ability to stand up to bullies and those who disrespect him.
The core of the story is Maia's evolution from a lonely, friendless and isolated boy to one who is held in love and affection by the people around him and has many friends. However, Addison does also emphasize the isolating nature of a high office such as Emperor.
His interactions with many people evolve (they have to, as an Emperor is never left alone). These include his future Empress, his bodyguards, various political allies and enemies, petitioners, his grandfather, etc.
There's something adolescent about this story idea. The special snowflake whose worth is finally recognized by the world. Life doesn't always work that way, kiddies.
Still, Maia's basic goodness and compassion are the core of the story. And he's not the least egotistical or vain. These qualities, along with his eye for innovative ideas, are what make him an excellent ruler.
The rest is just ornate ornamental fluff.
Kyle McCarley's audio reading was usually appropriate, although at times it seemed a bit pompous.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>
Executive Summary: The second half of this book is far superior to the first half making for a rather enjoyable read for me in the end. It won't be for everyone though.
Full Review I must say I'm surprised to be giving this such a high rating. And not a 3.5 rounded up, but a solid 4. At the start of the book this was more like the 2.5 area.
The writing is fine. The world building, though sparse was decent. And I liked Maia from the start. With the reading funk I was in, this seemed like a good option to get me out of it. But despite all that I was bored. I barely touched it for a week. I'd read maybe one chapter a night. I skipped a few nights without reading it all. There just didn't seem to be much plot. Maia kept meeting a bunch of people whose names I still can't keep straight.
Then somewhere around the midway point, the plot finally seemed to kick in and I was hooked. I read the first 200 pages in 12 days. I read the rest of the book in 2. I was hoping to put a good dent in this book this weekend because it's due back to the library soon. I wasn't expecting to finish it.
If it hadn't been a group pick, I might have quit on it. I haven't quit on a book in years though, and I didn't hate it, I just wasn't really into it either.
I'm really glad I stuck with it. It was a lot of fun. I just wish the first half of it hadn't been so slow. I think that may turn a lot of people off who might end up liking it in the end as I did. There are just too many books out there to stick it out.
I'm not sure if this deserves the Nebula it's been nominated for, but I can see why it was nominated. But I expect a lot of people will question it however. The sense of danger prevalent in most fantasy novels is never really there. The conflicts may be a bit too light/easy for some. For me though, it was just what I needed.
And I'm glad that it's a stand alone. That is so rare these days. I'd read more books about Maia, but I think sort of coming of age/learning how to rule story is sufficient as it is.
Maia never expected to become much of anyone. Although he’s technically a prince, after his mother died his father the emperor relegated him to exile at a remote manor, under the care of an abusive guardian. He never really expected to escape his position of disfavor, due to his mixed racial heritage. However, when a terrible airship accident not only kills his father, but also wipes out all the other people ahead of him in line for the succession, in one fell blow, Maia is unexpectedly recalled to court to take up the crown.
Although unprepared for this responsibility, he’s determined to make a go of it, and give it his best shot. However, the swirl of sophisticated society is overwhelming to him, let alone the nuances of ruling an empire. And although Maia would like to make friends, enemies are already waiting for him.
I requested this book without reading up on anything about it. At 16% of the way through, I said, ‘no way this is a debut author – the writing is too sharply honed,’ and I looked it up. It’s Sarah Monette! I LOVE Sarah Monette! (And I believe I actually read about this book coming out under a pseudonym on her blog, several years ago, but forgot about it!)
No matter what name she uses, this is a truly excellent work. The characters are finely drawn, and treated with sensitivity. There’s a constant, well-paced tension as Maia navigates this new and alien world, forms alliances, discovers plots, and tries to investigate his father’s death. The concerns of different factions of the aristocracy, the working classes, women, and different cultures are all dealt with for a complex, convincing setting. The positioning of elves and goblins at the brink of an Industrial Revolution(?) is unusual but convincingly done, without any sacrifice of ‘magic’ and the rich panoply of a faerie court. Even the language and the social hierarchy felt fresh and new.
I know it’s only February, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this is the best book I’ll read this year.
I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley. Thanks to NetGalley and Tor/Forge.
Edit on reread - currently reading The Hands of the Emperor, which gave me the uncontrollable urge for a reread of this. Glad I did, because this is a phenomenal book. Many more rereads to come!
I'm late in getting to this one - but I'm so happy I finally gave in to all the good reviews.
I can see why this is a hard one for some to get into. The reader starts in almost the same position as Maia - new to court, met with unfamiliar terms and characters they don't know, and up against what seems a truly intimidating amount of information to take in. That was part of the genius, though, because who can you turn to as a familiar point then? Maia himself, and he's a character you already want to root for; innately kind, endearingly awkward, and not exempt from losing his temper (save us from overly perfect protagonists!). As an audience-insert, he's perfect.
On the subject of potentially scared-off readers, I've usually found this comic to be pretty consistently reliable. But there had to be an exception to prove the rule, and honestly, this is one. What was made up here fit so well that it wasn't standing out and jolting me out of the flow of reading - there's also a guide at the back of the book, should you want to save the time of gleaning meaning via context.
The language itself is just so easy to read. What's spoken is court-formal - plural pronouns, sooths and thees, but what's written is far less intricate and is just perfect for long reading stretches. The pace of the book is measured and steady, but a lot happens, especially considering this is a standalone.
I absolutely adored this book, and I'll grant that it's not going to be for every reader, but for those it speaks to, what a joy.