Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor is a coming-of-age story set in an Elfland empire during a time of airships and mechanical clocks. The titular Emperor – an outcast youngest son – finds himself not only unprepared for a position none thought he would inherit, but beset on all sides by opposition fueled by class, race, sexism, ambition, misinformation, ignorance, greed, tradition, and every other force acting on the empire and those who shape its future. The story's scope slowly broadens from one boy's bewilderment to an enormous intrigue involving the Empire's relations with foreign nations, the internecine competition within the Empire, political disputes over infrastructure development, and a host of prejudices.
Why You Want To Read The Goblin Emperor
The Goblin Emperor depicts an empire entangled in a complex web of internal politics, personal pride, public corruption, conflicting philosophy, international tensions, technological innovations, family ties, social customs, class division, economic competition, educational divides, and imperial traditions. The author weaves ignorance, greed, and hatred into a rich tapestry; opponents can't simply be murdered off or dismissed because many of them are perfectly good people in need of a few true facts. The protagonist must choose whether to surrender or fight every time he's confronted, and the reader learns who he is by the battles he picks. Along the way, he teaches himself and those about him who he is. (At least, those who bother to look.)
Told in close-third, The Goblin Emperor follows Maia's ascent – from an ignorant boy under the fist of an exiled drunken bully, to a minority-race Emperor surrounded by courtiers who would happily see him sink into a soft life as prisoner in an imperial residence. By actively involving himself to ensure the competent investigation of last emperor's death in an airship wreck, Maia makes himself the target of those whose last assassination brought him to the throne. Maia isn't drawn into defending all his dead father's policies, but he's brought to discover just what a complex world he's joined.
The prejudices that drive so much of the conflict in The Goblin Emperor aren't trite character tags, but plausible-seeming convictions as variable as the characters are diverse. As characters learn more from each other, the reader learns which quickly abandon false ideas, and which cling to their views despite the facts like the small-souled bigots the author clearly intends them to be. Maia distinguishes himself not because he's got a magic wand (he's useless at magic) or because he was born to fulfill some great prophesy (he was born to die in exile). He also doesn't distinguish himself as a warrior (he gets the worst of every physical confrontation). His distinguishing characteristic is that he possesses and maintains his humanity. The coming of age story culminates not with a coronation or a marriage but with a decision to do something big for the people he rules despite the headwinds he faces getting it off the ground: he makes good on something that matters to strangers.
Traditional Jaded Consumer Content Alert
The Jaded Consumer generally includes a note or two on aspects of a reviewed work for readers whose peculiar sensitivities may be upset by some otherwise innocuous aspect of a fictional work. For example, some readers may be sensitive to the appearance of genuine belief in real-world religions, such as appears in Eliza Crewe's Cracked. In Steven Brust's and Skyler White's The Incrementalists, the Jaded Consumer noted a reader would find politics. Myke Cole's Shadow Ops series offers optimism about the human condition. Naturally, none of these are fatal. A reader with the certain senstitivities may be, shall we say, mismatched to a book. Content alerts are for these less-than-fully-omnivorous readers. If you're made of tougher stuff, feel free to skip this part. The content alerts here are based on speed and politics.
Until the protagonist – Maia – becomes embroiled in the Empire's complexities, the reader sees nothing but his personal worries and fears. The reader learns about the world no faster than the main character. If you enjoy only action sequences, and lack patience to watch
characters discover their world and themselves, this book is not for
you. This isn't a story about a conquering hero or a successful warlord. The protagonist inherits his title when everyone ahead of him in succession unexpectedly dies. The meat of the story is about what Maia does after inheriting – the choices he makes while dealing with people and exercising power. This isn't to say Maia does nothing; his decisions have a enormous effect on the allies he makes and the success of his reign. Without these decisions, he'd never keep his throne. There's conflict, and there's decision, and there's change. But if you require a heavy diet of fight scenes and chases, this is not the nail-biting thriller you were looking for.
Readers used to a breakneck pace may find this story's pace more stately than they are accustomed. The pace has definite causes. Sentences are not whittled to their barest parts. Facts are not bare; even pronouns are occasionally given long discussion. The non-English language of the Elves apparently has a formal first person (depicted as "we"; it's not the royal "we" because characters other than the Emperor employ it), a normal first person, and second-person pronouns that vary with familiarity. Speakers of European languages may find this circumstance more familiar than English-only speakers, but the author spends time describing the effect of these pronouns' use in dialog between characters whose relationships are changing. This isn't surplussage or waste, but it's a level of detail that has an effect on the speed with which anything can be described: things can take a while. This doesn't mean they're boring to persons of normal sensitivity, but the fact may be of interest to readers who know they demand things move at top speed.
Then, there's politics. [SPOILER] The Goblin Emperor drops lots of details on the reader to illustrate the brokenness of the empire Maia inherits. Inequity in educational opportunity, gender rights, and all kinds of areas are all dropped on the reader as on the new emperor, and we sense the emperor intends working on all these things. The protagonist articulates no promise or plan for them all, but the reader is given a clear idea that there's much work to be done in the empire, and plenty of evil to be had in unconcerned government. The Goblin Emperor advocates social reform by condemning gender roles, bullies, and the apparatus of established power. To the extent the reader wants Maia to succeed, it's because the political necessities suggested by the author resonate with the reader: we want the empire's victims saved from the laws and customs that drive artisans blind weaving fine silks, ruin women's educational opportunities over socially-assigned roles determined by gender, and oppress the working classes to the point the emperor is unable to fault a villain's conclusion that all the good accomplished by the protagonist has been made possible by an establishment-toppling multiple-murder just before the opening curtain of Chapter One. [/SPOILER] The Goblin Emperor is, therefore, political: it not only urges that genuine humans are needed in power (implying that the kinds of oppression depicted in the book prove they are not), but it comments on the role of violence in these reforms in ways that could easily upset persons of tender sensitivities.
I certainly enjoyed The Goblin Emperor, but those readers with peculiar sensitivity to pace or politics should be aware how each work in this book.
Details. Glorious Details.
The author spends considerable time showing the reader details. For example, the outrageous ostentation of the top tier of society in the Empire is depicted in recurring descriptions of dress and adornment and the conduct of servants. The author's recurring discussion of personal pronouns signals a willingness to examine minute details in the interest of painting The Goblin Emperor in full color for the reader. Despite clear willingness to slow to provide detail to readers, The Goblin Emperor did surprise with non-detail in two places. Near the beginning of the book, Maia looks from an airship at a "beautiful" view of the sun on the horizon. Later, he looks on a "surprising" gift clock. The build-up to each event engendered an expectation of some description why the adjectives were warranted. What sort of beauty? What kind of surprise? Colors? Shapes? Movement? These things weren't important to the story, but the detail painted for the hair accoutrements and carriage attendants and jewelry and so many other non-critical things led me to blink in surprise that these descriptions were omitted. But these details don't affect the story, so what does it matter? Katherine Addison showers readers with beautiful details that depict the alien worlds of the Elves and their Goblin neighbors.
Readers who want to get all the information encoded by the author in her writing may wish to note that the book has a useful appendix. "Extracts from A Handbook for Travelers in the Elflands" – purportedly a Crooked Stair Press product printed for the Royal Merchants Guild of Porcharn – may be worth bookmarking by those who want to understand when the author uses a family name to describe the whole family and when the author intends using a family name to explain the gender and marital status of an individual. The author divulges the system for decoding the endings affixed to family-name roots, and this may be of real help to people hoping to keep straight which of two related people are being described (which could be disambiguated by gender, for example). I personally found myself hard-pressed to keep straight the large number of long and alien-looking Elf names, but at least decoding them into gender and marital status is a help. In a paper edition, dog-ear the "Handbook" at the end. It's not essential to enjoyment, but it's an aid one should know exists.
The Goblin Emperor is an exciting look at a near-orphan coming of age in a hostile environment with nothing about him but his (largely uneducated) wits. It's an underdog story. Sure, the "underdog" is Emperor, but he's surrounded and outnumbered and bewildered, and his only "ally" in Chapter One is the drunk who beats him. We want poor Maia to succeed, and we're interested to see his humanity as he refuses to become the monster his accession to power invites. We want him to succeed not only in the sense of overcoming enemies, but in the sense of overcoming the urge to descend to their level to do it.
The Goblin Emperor comments on family, government, privilege, discrimination, and all kinds of things – but it's about the triumph of humanity on the only scale humans can really feel: one on one. Maia must teach individuals he's worth taking seriously as a human, and he must rescue others from misery, one at a time. There's a nation to save – perhaps a whole world – and it's too big for one person to fix. But Addison's emperor shows us the only success that matters: one individual's triumph against despair by doing better for others than one's been offered one's self. The victory of The Goblin Emperor is survival without losing one's soul. It's a journey that's wonderful to see in print, just as we long to see it in the waking world.
The Goblin Emperor is well worth reading, and I'll look forward to more from Katherine Addison in the future.