Completed 5/18/2015, Reviewed 5/19/2015
The Goblin Emperor is being nominated for awards all over the place. It’s a fairly basic fantasy plot of royal intrigue set in a steampunk-ish world of elves and goblins. An elvish emperor and his three eldest sons die in a tragic dirigible accident. Maia, the emperor’s fourth son and the product of a despised political marriage to a goblin princess, unexpectedly assumes the throne of the elvish empire at age 18. He is immediately met with disdain and outright hostility. Somehow, he must keep his sanity while navigating coup attempts and murder plots to establishing himself as the rightful claimant to the throne. What made this book stand out for me was the world-building and empathy for Maia that Addison created. I loved Maia and related to his struggle for acceptance in a cruel world.
I was totally sold on Maia right from the beginning. His mother died when he was eight and was left to be raised by a cruel guardian, himself exiled to this life of raising the ignored, or more accurately, reviled son of the emperor. When Maia is suddenly thrust into his new role, he simultaneously is relieved to be free of his abuser and terrified of a role for which he was never groomed. He has to learn all the ways of the royal court, discerning his friends and enemies. I’ve never been one for the complex politics often found in space opera and the like, and this book’s politics gets quite complicated, but I found Maia’s journey entertaining and very endearing, both in the successes and embarrassing faux pas (that’s the plural).
There was only one time I got lost in the politics, and it highlights a part of the book that is both awesome and frustrating. Addison developed a highly complex language of person and place names. Maia has the easiest name. Nearly all the other names are complicated and at times difficult to discern from one another. There are first and last names, differentiation in last names based on gender and number, salutations based on social rank, and given versus taken first names. Where I got completely befuddled was a dinner scene with Maia and his cabinet discussing the current issues of state. If I really studied this, I believe it would have been a great scene for understanding the personality and motivation of each of the elf ministers. Instead, I found myself rereading the same couple of pages over and over again, getting the gist, but missing the depth. I did well with most of the rest of the names, though often, when a previously introduced character came into a scene, it took me a paragraph or two to remember who exactly it was. The best thing about the names was that I picked up the pronunciation quickly. She uses the same basic rules as Tolkien does in his elvish.
I’ve read a lot of fantasy, though not much that had a lot of court intrigue. I know it exists out there. It made me wonder if the basic plot of this book hadn’t been done many times before. But I think what makes this book standout is simply the level of detail Addison created in the language, clothing, culture, manners, and mythology. I’m betting this will be the frontrunner for this year’s Mythopoeic Award.
But what set this book apart for me was the empathy which I felt for Maia. I think that’s the lasting impression I’ll have from reading it. I so wanted him to succeed in the way he approached his relationships and decision making. Every rejection he gets is heart-breaking and every scene where a person begins to come around to Maia’s side is exhilarating. And when the book was done, I felt that I had just said goodbye to one of the warmest, most deserving people I’ve ever met. Five stars out of five.