My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Goblin Emperor is a delightfully refreshing fantasy novel replete with rich world building and a unique backdrop of gender and racial division that paints a poignant image of our own world’s challenges. Maia, the protagonist of mixed Elven and Goblin descent, becomes emperor when his father - who never communicates with him - and brothers are assassinated. Maia’s life is clearly in peril, the more so because he comes to court unacquainted with the political movers and shakers.
Rather than give spoilers I will concentrate on what I found rewarding about the story. First, Maia is a wonderful character with whom the reader becomes enchanted. It’s not the cute ear movement or his trustworthy nature (he is not naive because his cousin has been cruel to him since his mother died, guaranteeing that he knows everyone despises him for his goblin nature). No, the best part of Maia is his heart and faith in getting good outcomes by being just. Whether it’s entertaining the designs of engineers or his treatment of the other heirs, Maia has an excellent moral compass. Simply put, he needs a good heart more than cruel calculating mind to navigate the tricky political waters.
Another thing I loved in the story that will probably make many tear their hair out is the richness of the constructed language and the other aspects of the world building. It’s a unique place. There are elements of steampunk mixed with decidedly “low” high fantasy with blurry lines between intermarrying elves and goblins. The reader might assume (this one did) that the elves were delightful nature lovers full of song and magic à la Tolkien where the goblins are sinister creatures with hammers and swords for your babies in their cribs, but Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) rises above the trite and makes the reader determine the merits of each individual not on their racial background, but their unique qualities as individuals. This works really well and it’s a big deal that she uses her voice to make this vital point.
Women in Maia’s world are fully repressed. They are essentially birthing modules for the next generation, vehicles by which political alliances are formed. Maia seems to accept the status quo at face value, while undermining it as he can. Again, it adds to his character to be so enlightened and also forces the reader to reflect on other fantasy worlds and how the gender divide is navigated.
What about the story? Again no spoilers, because if I tell you that everyone dies in the end, will you like the story more or less. It’s the path to the end, not the end itself, and the company you keep along the way. In The Goblin Emperor, you’re in good company.
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