The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison has been nominated for pretty much every fantasy award in existence for best novel in 2014/15. In most cases it didn’t turn out as the absolute winner, but boy, it is a great read! As usual, I heard about The Goblin Emperor on The Incomparable. A bit unusually, I read it quite fresh.
The plot summary is… hard. Because as many reviews have pointed out, there’s really no overarching plot and after everything gets setup, the main character, Maia, is being dragged by the court along on a mostly unpleasant ride. A fourth son, a half goblin Maia, of the Elven emperor is summoned to the court from his exile in the middle of nowhere to be crowned emperor because his father and brothers died in a zeppelin accident. Being too far down the succession line and a regretted child born out of political marriage, he’s received only limited education in seclusion, away from the court and contacts which makes him very ill-prepared for his new role. Quick action, advice from his hated teacher Setheris and surprising capabilities of the messenger Csevet who becomes his secretary give him a fighting chance at the court.
The novel follows Maia as he tries to assert himself in the court he knows very little about. He has no contacts, no allies and doesn’t know who’s pulling which strings. The court intrigue is fascinating and riveting on its own, but a layer of culture in a complex world gives it an additional push to make it excellent. Yes, ultimately Maia just stumbles from coronation, to funeral, to marriage proposals, to treason, to execution, to socialistic uprising, to sabotage, to another treason, to civil planning, to international diplomacy, but the details of the process are interesting. How he has to deal with his new role, very strict etiquette, complete loss of privacy (and most of his sleep), contact with desirable women, interactions with stupid, incompetent or intentionally malevolent people in positions of power, ideologies, cultural clashes, habits and rituals is just fascinating.
Addison manages to successfully embed many social issues into the novel and while it sometimes borders on heavy handed, Maia is portrayed as extremely good, honest, polite and reasonable person with very little assumptions about the world. I feared the events of the book would turn Maia sarcastic and he would join the ranks of idealists crushed by the system, but the message of The Goblin Emperor is positive. While Maia loses some of his naivety as he learns how to be an emperor, he doesn’t lose his
humanity goblinity and general hopefulness which makes the novel a very pleasurable read trying to balance all the dark stories we can see every;where else.