The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

>> Wednesday, June 11, 2014

TITLE: The Goblin Emperor
AUTHOR: Katherine Addison

PAGES: 447

SETTING: Fantasy
TYPE: Fantasy

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 na├»ve 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.

Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor is an exciting fantasy novel, set against the pageantry and color of a fascinating, unique world, is a memorable debut for a great new talent.

Maia Drazhar is one of the heirs to the Emperor of Ethuveraz, but that's never brought him any happiness or privilege. His elf father was pressured into marrying his goblin mother to make an alliance with her empire, and regretted his decision not long after the marriage. Soon after Maia, grey-skinned and goblin-featured, was born, he and his mother were exiled to a remote, isolated estate. His mother died after not many years and Maia was left in the care of Setheris, a former courtier, who took out his bitterness and anger at his own banishment on Maia. He was both emotionally and physically abusive to the boy, without any fear that he would ever be called to account by someone from the Ethuveraz court. After all, Maia had three older brothers and was never expected to be recalled to court at all.

And then a messenger arrives with the news that the airship carrying the Emperor and his three sons has crashed, with everyone on board killed. Maia is next in line and Setheris, while a horrible person, is keen and clever, and he knows his fellow courtiers and the games they play very well. He makes sure Maia is in court before anyone can take control of proceedings. And thus begins Maia's reign.

And that's what this book is about: Maia finding his place as an emperor and learning to do his job. I thought at first that it would be a bit of a detective story, as it soon becomes clear that the airship accident that killed the rest of the royal family was caused by sabotage, but no. There is an investigation and this is a significant part of the plot, but it's not the main focus. The main focus is fully and completely on Maia's character development and growth.

The Maia who first arrives at court is completely out of his depth and he knows it. He's been taught a few things by Setheris, but none of the practical things he'll need to be able to understand what on earth is going on. It's things like who people are, beyond their formal titles and roles, and what the history between them is. It's the significance of what they say to him and why. He feels lost, and he is. He does, however, have the help of the messenger who was sent to tell him the news of his father's death, who turns out to be an immensely capable secretary, a source of both masses of information (messengers do get around and see quite a lot of what's going on in court) and sensible advice. And slowly, Maia builds around him a circle of people who support him in his growth and with whom he develops some really fascinating relationships.

I liked how Maia changes, but I also liked the stuff that was in him from the start. He is a genuinely kind person. He also has a deep well of inner strength. That has been beaten down by Setheris, but it's still there, and it's clear it's still there, even at the beginning. His treatment of Setheris when they arrive at court makes it clear. There's the strength in refusing to let Setheris be part of his circle, immediately expelling him out of any areas where he might exert influence on him. But there's also the kindness of not wanting to take a revenge on Setheris that will have adverse consequences on the man's wife, however much selfish pleasure it would bring Maia (and, to be honest, this reader).

As the book progresses, Maia comes into his power. He learns about the court and starts becoming more and more confident and willing to lead, as well as to perform a ceremonial role. But the internal characteristics of inner strength and kindness don't change, and they ensure that he is still the person we can recognise from the beginning of the book. They make him a leader with great empathy, one who can see the need for change in several areas, and who has the fortitude to make that change happen, if gradually. Seeing this come to pass is just lovely. One of my favourite sections was on Maia's birthday, when we see, in a subtle, understated way, the effect his insistence on being kind and doing what he feels is right has had on his subjects.

I also loved the setting. It's complex and rich, and I particularly liked that there are no easy read-throughs to existing societies. It's not a world inspired on a particular country, or on any particular worlds created by other authors (that I know of, at least; I admit I'm not hugely well-read in the fantasy genre). Oh, and the romance. I really liked that, too. It's subtle and there's not a huge emphasis on it, but what there is was perfect.

In objective terms, this is possibly not a perfect book, but to me, the flaws that others might perceive were strengths. The Goblin Emperor might be seen as a boring, slow book. I saw the gradual character development and the strong focus on this as making it particularly gripping. I was as entranced by the short action sequences as by the detailed exploration of their consequences, as interested in who had sabotaged the airship as in the discussion of the arguments for and against building a bridge over a particular section of the river.

There were also a tonne of strange, unpronounceable names, sometimes looking quite similar, and with some characters having both a name and a title, sometimes used separately. I was sometimes left to wonder just who someone was, but that only made me feel exactly as Maia would have felt: overwhelmed and confused. A quick kindle search fixed the matter, and print readers will be easily able to refer to the pronounciation guide and list of characters provided (at the end of the ebook edition, so it didn't do me much good). Even then, I only needed to search a couple of times. The rest of the time I just went with the flow and trusted that things would become clear and make sense on their own, and they always did.

Finally, some might argue that Maia was improbably lucky with his initial choice of secretary, but I prefer to think that what we are told about how messengers work and what their function is gives us a clue as to how exactly the right person for the job was the first person from court Maia came across. It worked for me.

I enjoyed every minute I was reading this. Every single minute. I kept trying to slow myself down as the end was approaching. It's not a perfect book, but my experience of reading it was perfect. I can only thank Janine Ballard for her review at Dear Author, because without it, I don't think I would have picked it up.

MY GRADE: An A+, and I don't hand these out often.


Minesha 11 June 2014 at 04:46  

Wonderful review !
I cannot wait to read it! :D

Janine Ballard 11 June 2014 at 07:04  

Yay! So happy you enjoyed it. That's all the thanks I needed. I hope more readers give it a shot-- I suspect some romance readers look at the cover and title and assume it's not for them, but I think many of them would enjoy it.

Anonymous,  11 June 2014 at 13:05  

You have exactly captured my feelings about The Goblin Emperor. It is a wonderful, wonderful book, one of the best things I've read in what feels like forever. I'm in the middle of a reread now, and have just reached the section with Maia's birthday--lovely. One of the most charming things about Maia is how truly good he is, and how uncalculated the things he does are.

This is the book I've been pressing on anyone who complains that s/he hasn't read a good book in ages.


Darlynne,  11 June 2014 at 17:16  

Can't wait to get my hands on this one. I'm so grateful for all the reviewers who point me to good books.

Marianne McA,  12 June 2014 at 23:39  

I really enjoyed it too. (One ludicrous quibble - I somehow found it troubling that Setheris had been trained as a barrister because in my head barristers belong firmly in this world.)

But everything else I loved. After I finished the book - not during - I did wonder if Maia was just too mature for his age. But on further reflection, I decided I'd no idea at what age goblins or elves normally mature, nor what length a year would be on that world - plus he clearly comes from a line of high achievers on both sides of his family tree.

I already know it's a book I'll reread.

Rosario 14 June 2014 at 10:00  

Minesha: Hope you enjoy it!

Janine: It's funny how that works, isn't it? I'd rather take recommendations about non-romance books from other romance readers than from anyone else (including specialists in their respective genres).

Aoife: I can see myself rereading it again and again. It's a really nice thing to believe, that actions taken purely because they're the right thing to do are going to turn out being exactly the right things politically. Believable in the real world? Maybe not, but I don't care!

Darlynne: From what I know about your tastes, I'd predict you'll love this one! :)

Marianne McA: Yes, Setheris and all the stuff he could do might be a little bit too much, but I was perfectly happy to suspend disbelief there, because I loved everything so much. As for Maia's maturity, that's a good point. I suppose if you compare him with the very few other young people we see, like his nephew, for instance, he doesn't seem overly mature...

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