The Goblin Emperor
by Katherine Addison
Cover Artist: Anna and Elena Balbusso
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765326997
Date: 01 April 2014 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
The Goblin Emperor is a wonderful character study of a goblin who was never supposed to become emperor of the elves and how he struggles to survive and do the right thing despite court intrigues and manners of which he is completely unfamiliar. The writing is of very high quality and the characters truly grow and develop. But fans of magic and action would be better off finding a different book.
Maia is the son of the emperor of the elves and his fourth wife, a goblin. He is brought up far from court, raised by an abusive cousin and a handful of servants, and barely educated. As he had three elder brothers, no one believed he would ever inherit the throne. But when the airship with the emperor, prince, and two other brothers crashed with no survivors, Maia becomes Emperor Edrehasivar VII of the Unthelieneise Court at age 18. The ultimate fish out of water, he has never heard an opera, has no friends, and knows nothing about governing. He is constantly being underestimated and many in court, including people in his government, believe he should abdicate or be overthrown. But he is sincere and honest and a genuine good person. He shows compassion for the others killed in the airship crash and allows his half-sister to study the stars instead of marrying her off for political advantage.
Gradually, he wins the confidence of some of his bodyguards, although they are careful to tell him that because of his position, they cannot be friends. He slowly acquires a few advisors and allies he can trust and there are hints that his own arranged marriage could develop into a real relationship. While there are a couple of coups and a high level of intrigue which Maia slowly learns to recognize, there is only one real instance of onstage violence.
The book raises the question of genre. The presence of goblins and elves would indicate fantasy but there is no magic and Maia is proof that the two races can interbreed. Nothing done by the elves or goblins in the book require them to be fantasy creatures. The elves might as well be French and the goblins Germans without needing many changes. While books like Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint show it is possible to have fantasy without magic, these work by creating an elaborate culture that never existed. Here, the elvish culture, with opera and courtly dances, could just as easily be European. One exception is language, many characters, not just the emperor, use a second person plural to indicate formality.
A major plotline is what happened to the airship, which could indicate a mystery. But, Maia is the emperor, not an investigator. Instead, he appoints a Witness for the Dead, from the former Empress' staff which causes some complaint. The mystery unfolds in letters and reports from the witness, rather than any detecting by the main character.
There are also a few steampunk elements, most notably the airship and how it was destroyed. There is also a mechanical model of a retractable bridge (which provides a wonderful scene in which Maia gleefully plays with it like a child with a toy.
Katherine Addison is really a pseudonym for Sarah Monette, the author of the Melusine series and co-author (with Elizabeth Bear) of A Companion to Wolves. She states on her website that she adopted the pen name "Because publishing is deeply, deeply weird." This publisher-mandated name changing makes it hard for authors to build a following when readers who like one book cannot easily find others by that author. While some writers make a big splash right away, many others have grown their fanbase over time.
Essentially, The Goblin Emperor does not easily fit into any traditional genre. It really is an extensive character study, taking a na´ve youth and putting him in a situation that forces him to learn and grow as he is unable to rely on anyone other than himself. This is truly a work of literature, with an elegant writing style. This is the book to give to parents and significant others who dismiss fantasy as kid's stuff, nothing but wizards and dragons. People who enjoy 19th century novels or stories of courts and kings will love this. Fans of swords and sorcery or exciting battles may be better satisfied with a more traditional fantasy.