Book Review: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

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.

I picked up this book last year, only to shelve it again within the first few pages itself. This cycle repeated again and again; the only reason I didn't give up on it entirely is because I felt too bad about dismissing a book as DNF without giving it even twenty odd pages, especially when everyone I knew was positively raving about it. Finally, I took up the audiobook -- and lo and behold, I finally realized why The Goblin Emperor makes for such a great read.

Simply put, this is the tale of how the underdog became emperor, and who doesn't love the underdog winning?

Maia is the son of the Elvish Emperor from a goblin princess, and is the least favoured of all the princes. As a young "hobgoblin", when his mother dies, Maia is sent off to a remote estate under the cold tutelage of Setheris, a hard, cynical bully of a man. It seems improbable that Maia's life will ever turn for the better, but then the airship carrying the royal family crashes, and 18-year old Maia suddenly becomes the last living ascendant to the throne. From there onwards, it's all about Maia navigating the tricky contours of the royal court.

Addison has written the book in short seamless vignettes, so that the events of each day come alive like the scenes from a diary. It's a style which works well, because you feel like Maia himself, as he handles task after task, deals with courtier after courtier, never a private moment or a restful space for himself. As the saying goes, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

And yet, the book is also teeming with cliches: the unhappy relatives, the power-hungry commander-in-chief, the arranged marriage, the ever-so-efficient secretary, the loyal guards, the beautiful opera singer. When the exceptions to these cliches come up, the exceptions themselves become cliches: including, the attempts at coup and at assassination. There are few greys in this book, and most characters are either For Maia or Against Maia, outright loyal or outright treacherous. These are all common themes of most tales dealing with royal intrigue, and so some of the machinations in The Goblin Emperor become too glaringly obvious. In that respect, the book is very different from the likes of, say, The Thief of Attolia series by Megan Whalen Turner, which though YA, is exceptionally multi-layered and dark. Some bloggers have called The Goblin Emperor "grimdark"; for myself, I could not find much grimdark in the book, but I could see the gradual unfolding of Maia's solemn maturity into a good ruler.

....Which brings me to what I loved about the book and why I am recommending it to you. Maybe this book abounds in lucky co-incidences and predictable cliches, but interspersed between those literary stalemates are moments of absolutely glory that will make this book worthwhile. For each time that you roll your eyes, you will also find an episode which will make you smile and sigh and marvel what a good time our Maia is turning out to be. Young as he is, Maia's nature is so innately good-willed and kind and fair, you can't help but root for him. The beginning of the reign of the "Maia the Bridge Builder" is something straight out of a history book (the parts you cram not for a test, but to learn about great men), and Addison put him there.

"When it was only the two of them, and Telimezh and Kiru behind Maia’s chair, Csevet said, “Between this and Nelozho, they will start calling you Edrehasivar the Bridge-Builder.”

Maia thought about it. “We suppose you are right.” He thought about it some more, thought about alliances, about Idra and Csethiro and Gormened, about Lord Pashavar and Captain Orthema, about Vedero and Mer Celehar. About Cala and Beshelar, Kiru and Telimezh. About Csevet himself. He regretted the bridges he had not built, Setheris and Sheveän and Chavar, and the bridges he had never had a chance to build—his brother Nemolis, for one. And he knew that if the rest of his life was spent in building bridges, that would be no bad thing."

Rating: 9/10
Recommended for fans of court/ royal intrigue; Megan Whalen Turner, and maybe even Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  • Current Location: Fantasy Book Critic
  • Current Mood: tired tired
  • Current Music: Tomorrow Will Be Kinder- Secret Sisters
I'm interested that you've seen people describing this as "grimdark"! I haven't seen that at all; in fact, I've seen a lot of the opposite, people saying that if you're tired of the grimdark trend, this is a good book to try. It's interesting how people can get such different things out of books, I suppose.

Anyway, I'm glad you liked it! So did I, and this is a great review.
Completely agree -- I was generally trawling the web for the best books of 2014, and the Goblin Emperor came up so often, and there were people who said it was almost 'grimdark' because of the bleak settings (very unlike the usual YA apparently) and Maia's life before he became emperor... And another set of people who said the book teaches you to hope and to believe in the goodness of fellow beings. Er. To sum up, I had no idea the Goblin Emperor could generate such contrasting POVs.