Books like The Goblin Emperor come around maybe once in a decade. Books that can go against the grain of their genre’s direction and be wildly successful, hopefully spurring on a new trend that adds new dimensions to the genre it sits in. With The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison has written the antidote to all that gritty ‘grimdark’ that’s been doing the rounds for the last ten years or so, with a story that does not entirely dismiss their thematic tropes but twists them into a newer, more hopeful direction.
The premise for the story is simple: Maia is the son of the emperor, but not the heir. He is the son of the emperor’s third wife, and through no fault of his own has spent most of his life relegated to an estate far from the capital with his jealous and cynical cousin Setheris. As the book begins Maia is told that the emperor and all of his sons – Maia’s elder brothers – have perished in an airship crash, and lo and behold Maia is the new emperor. The book is essentially Maia’s story as he navigates his way around an unfamiliar court filled with ambitious and traitorous family members, politicians and nobles – and just maybe his father’s airship accident wasn’t so accidental after all.
The Goblin Emperor is that oh-so-wondrous of beasts: a simple story well told. Maia is our one and only point-of-view, and Addison makes the reader feel as if his problems were our own. The connection between Maia and the reader is intense and his instant and constant likeability is a big factor in what makes the whole book work so well. Maia is completely out of his depth in his court, and through the use of a complex hierarchy and formal language style unique to the book the reader feels as much of an outsider as he does. But Maia is so consistent and unwilling to give up that he gives this book a really refreshing feel that I’ve not seen in fantasy in a long time. It’s hopeful. Yes, there’s darkness there and it hints at a harsh world outside of the court (as well as some hinted at xenophobia due to Maia’s goblin heritage) but because of Maia it never loses that sense of a light at the end of the tunnel.
Of course a good book needs a good supporting cast and honestly The Goblin Emperor has one of the best I’ve read bar none. Whether it is Maia’s secretary Csevet (who will be any reader’s favourite), his nohecharei (bodyguards) Beshelar and Cala, his personal helpers (or edocharei), or even the more sinister characters like his cousin Setheris or Lord Chancellor Chavar, they all feel so incredibly well realised that it’s a joy to read. The core cast is kept relatively small, with the setting also contained almost exclusively to the elvish court, allowing for an intimacy that’s rare in epic fantasy nowadays. And it IS epic fantasy – this is just a perspective we’ve never had before.
The plot is a constant driving force, with Maia’s struggles always at the forefront, and when something big occurs it really is impossible to put down. Some might find the formal language (occasional thees and thous, but it’s rare and does work for a good reason) and naming conventions a bit difficult to get round (there is a guide at the back of the book, but I didn’t read it until I got there and found I’d managed fine by the end) and if court politics and little actual sword-on-sword action sounds like it might bore you then maybe it’s not the book for you.
But for me it was an absolute revelation. Quite genuinely this book is one of the best I have ever read. It will be reread many times and has become, for me, an instant favourite. As much as I read it is rare nowadays to find a book so hard to put down and so impossible to put down for the last time. Turning that last page was heartbreaking, knowing it’s finished and that I’ve come to the end of Maia’s story. But I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that before long I’ll pick The Goblin Emperor up again, if only for a little hope.