Young, sheltered and abused, Maia is the Emperor’s least-loved son, the only offspring of a poorly-judged political match. When a terrible accident kills his father and brothers, Maia is recalled from exile and proclaimed Emperor – upsetting every apple cart in the empire. Can he hold on to the throne?
The Goblin Emperor is a book with a towering reputation, which I knew relatively little about. I knew several people whose opinions frequently overlap with mine enjoyed it a great deal. I knew that at least one had some dismay about the female characters. And I knew another considered it an all-time favourite and a go-to comfort read. So it seemed like an ideal choice to finally catch up on during a wet, lonely weekend away for work.
Friends, I wasn’t wrong.
That said, I got off to a rocky start, thanks to the vagaries of ebooks. Katherine Addison has detailed a world of different races, classes and faiths and she drops you straight in at the deep end. 40 pages in, I felt like I was drowning in polysyllabic names and by-the-by world-building that might or might not be significant later on. I was fairly sure that if I could only figure it out, the careful naming conventions at least would be illuminating.
If only I’d thought to check for a glossary. It’s a funny thing – in a physical book, you see the table of contents and you know about the glossary; in ebooks I never think to check and consequently work much harder to keep up. You’d think I’d learn.
But I hung in there, attracted by hero Maia and his inner circle. Maia’s great strength as a protagonist – and his great weakness as the new Emperor – is his kind nature and his empathy. It made me worry for him as he said and did things that were shockingly naive (or unwittingly insulting); and it meant I warmed to him from the start. The Goblin Emperor is a coming of age tale and an underdog story, and it’s very easy to root for its heartwarming hero. You want him to do well, because he’s such a well-meaning lad.
Being a world-building geek, one of the things I liked about the book was the richness of Addison’s world. This isn’t just a stifling court drama, although it is set at a stifling court. There is a broader international and racial context – Maia’s mother was a goblin princess, and his dark skin means he physically stands out among the fair-skinned elvish nobility (making him a target for racist abuse) – and his grandfather is the powerful high king of the goblins. The elves may want their ‘hobgoblin’ ruler dead, but they don’t want to give his grandfather an excuse to get involved.
There’s also a national and social context: the nobility aren’t the only people with grudges, and as we glimpse how they abuse their privileges and reap the profits of common labour (including child labour) it’s not hard to understand why there are revolutionary movements stirring. Taken altogether, it’s far more than an under-educated young man raised by a hateful cousin in the marshlands can be expected to handle. Maia is at a massive disadvantage, and must make allies as fast as he can.
As some make no secret of their disdain and others fall over themselves to be helpful, I rapidly felt guilty for expecting the worst of everyone. The Goblin Emperor should certainly be read as political intrigue, but this is a personal fantasy – as much about Maia vanquishing his own demons as whether he can work out who killed him father and consolidate his grip on the throne. Some of those around him really do appreciate him for who he is, and as friendships emerged, they were as comforting for me as for Maia (I adored Beshelar – I’d have happily read The Goblin Emperor as a slowburn m/m romance, although I enjoyed that – unlike so much fantasy – it focuses on friendships instead).
Maia desperately needs the comfort. Being Emperor is a lonely job at the best of times, and Maia has been isolated and abused since he was young. He struggles continuously with his self-worth (inflicted by his vicious cousin and reinforced by detractors at court). It would be so easy to take out his insecurities on others. The scene in which he refuses to punish someone in the way he most wishes to because it is cruel (…which he knows from first-hand experience) is utterly heartbreaking. He cannot betray what he is, which is fundamentally kind – even when he expects no kindness to be shown him by anyone else.
As such, The Goblin Emperor is the perfect shot in the arm for anyone tired of grimdark worlds and conflicted antiheroes. That’s not to say the world-building didn’t get me riled up – it’s racist as well as homophobic, in many ways feeling like 18th century Europe expressed through fantasy window dressing. This is also a highly patriarchal society, where women are considered intellectually inferior and married off.
It’s not that the world isn’t full of fascinating female characters who challenge the paradigm (Aunt Shaleän!) – it’s “just” that they receive little or no actual page time (which I naturally found frustrating); and the ones who do are often antagonists. We at least see more of Maia’s unwilling fiancée, who is magnificent – her appearances had me cheering and tearing up (her note about Sheveän was glorious). And ultimately, this is a book about Maia, who is an agent of change. He repeatedly upholds the rights of the women he interacts with, and values them as people. His adoption of Kiru Athmaza is perhaps the most public act of defiance for the quietly feminist emperor.
So it’s a relatively small gripe, even from a reader as fanatically interested as I am in narratives that are not male dominated. Because it is beautifully written, and because I adored Maia’s inner circle: competent Csevet, uptight Beshelar, supportive Cala, even the gentlemen of the Corazhas (the scenes in which their public and personal personas become blurred are wonderful). My reading notes go from critical and mildly disapproving to all caps and emojis as they slowly but surely won my heart.
In fact, this is a novel that rewards you for reading heart first. In so doing, I found it a dramatic if understated rollercoaster; the stakes are initially Maia’s survival and increasingly his happiness. I desperately wanted a happy ever after for him, and the emotional stakes were so high that this more than sufficed as a core plot, although it was gratifying to see how the intricate subplots unfolded. Highly recommended for those seeking a fantasy equivalent to solarpunk.
Now, what are the chances of us getting a spin-off with the adventures of Aunt Shaleän?