Fantasy Review: ‘The Goblin Emperor’ by Katherine Addison

The Goblin EmperorI finished The Goblin Emperor and found myself smiling.  Not just from the joy of reading a really good book, but because for the first time in a long time I read a fantasy novel with a hopeful tone.  Obviously the current trend of the genre is quite the opposite of hopeful, and those that break out of the dark tone tend to end with everything wrapped up in a package and happily ever after.  But to end just on a hopeful tone?  Well, that just causes smiles.

The blurb really tells you what you need to know.  This tale opens with Maia being woken by his guardian to be given news of an airship crash that was carrying not only the emperor, but everyone ahead of Maia in the line of succession.  Suddenly the half goblin, hated by his father and unknown to the court, must leave his exile to take the reign as Emperor.  No longer subject to his guardians apathy and abuse, but all alone in the complex elven court, this is the story of a man over his head but doing what he can.

I find myself struck by the realism of this book; specifically when it comes to character personalities and their interactions with each other.  Maia is an outsider, an other, as unknown to the court as it is to him.  Immediately he finds himself surrounded by false friends and those who feel they can hold power over him.  In lesser hands the major players of the court would have come down to the good guys and the bad guys; many books promising political intrigue seem to fall into this trap.  But Addison actually took the time to craft her characters; each has their own unique motivations.  While those who are truly against Maia are hard to find common ground with, almost everyone else has motives that are believable and even sympathetic, even when the characters are putting a false face forward for Maia.

As a main character Maia does not disappoint, a good thing because this is his story and his story alone.  Though told in the third person the perspective never leaves his side.  The hopeful tone I mentioned works because he is so likable.  I felt his loneliness and isolation, understood his follies and false steps in court, and felt the joy for him as he discovered who in the court he could really count on, even hope to call a friend.  He may be out of his depth but he is not naïve, and it led to interesting interactions.

This is a book with long names and some strict speaking conventions that are unofficially enforced in court.  As such I had a bit of a false start as I lost track of a couple of characters and had to back track and restart early in.  But Addison was consistent in her use of the language, and most names had a shorted form, so it was not long before I was in the flow of the book and forgot I had any issues with it to begin with.  It was a well-paced story, smart and interesting when a bit slower but with a bit more action than early reviews suggested sprinkled in.  As an unlikely man on the throne and holder of some more liberal ideas he makes some real enemies, and they are not afraid to attempt some extreme measures.  And while his dealings with the necessities of court makes up the main plot of the book, the question of his father’s death needs to be answered as well.

My quibbles were minor; I really enjoyed almost every aspect of this book.  I had a bit of an eye roll moment when a letter dealing with the investigation came in; handwritten and of much importance it was page after page of ‘this is what has been happening off the screen.’  And as big of a deal as his Goblin heritage seemed to be at first I was a bit surprised at how quickly certain parties were ok with it.  Perhaps this is purely expectations; I expected this to be a bit more of a racial prejudice parallel that never really materialized.  Or perhaps Addison was too successful, her subtlety messing with my expectations one more time.

Almost every review I have read of this book thus far have pointed out that this book can be seen as the antithesis of the GRIMDARK trend.  I can’t help but agree.  With its slower but meaningful pace and hopeful tone I hope it gains a following that proves that this type of story has its place out there as well.

4 Stars

Review Copy received through NetGalley.

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