The Goblin Emperor

Katherine Addison
The Goblin Emperor Cover

The Goblin Emperor


What a delightful surprise this was. I admit I was drawn in by the cover first. When I found out it was published by Tor and that the author's name is a pseudonym of Sarah Monette, I knew I needed to read it. I've never read anything by Monette, but I have her entire Doctrine of Labyrinths series on my shelves somewhere. It was high time I started reading something or other she had written.

First sentence: Maia woke with his cousin's cold fingers digging into his shoulder.

A vividly imagined fantasy of court intrigue and dark magics in a steampunk-inflected world, by a brilliant young talent.
The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an "accident," he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.
Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.
Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend... and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne – or his life.
This exciting fantasy novel, set against the pageantry and color of a fascinating, unique world, is a memorable debut for a great new talent.

The Goblin Emperor is one of those books you slowly fall into. It makes all the more sense because Maia, the protagonist-suddenly-turned-emperor, feels exactly the same. We (Maia and the readers, that is) arrive at court and are bombarded with strange sounding names, courtiers who have agendas we don't understand, rules of propriety, and politics galore. It's a hot mess and Maia is trying to navigate it to the best of his ability. But it means trusting people he doesn't know. Without a single friend, without anyone to confide in, Maia's loneliness is only understandable. What is so impressive is how well it comes across and how much I felt with Maia.

In a place where everybody wears politeness like an armor, it is nearly impossible to tell who is trustworthy and who merely seems to be. Equally, small gestures of kindness go a long way, and let me tell you, when someone shows kindness to Maia, it will bring tears to your eyes.The same goes for Maia's small victories such as the sigil he chooses for himself, or his name as emperor – Edrehasivar VII – so very different from that of his father.

I could talk about Maia for ages because I completely fell in love with him as a character. His introspection, the way he always tries to do what's best and remain a good person, makes him eternally endearing. He may feel like a toddler in a grown-up world but his empathy with all of his subjects makes him a much wiser ruler than his father was before him. Those characters who disagree with that assessment are the kind you love to hate.

Language plays a large part in this novel and it may be the one thing that could scare off readers. Maia's situation is confusing enough but when you add names such as the Untheileneise'meire or Dach'osmer, it gets hard to follow as a reader. Rest assured, there is a glossary at the end, plus a very handy guide to pronunciation and use of titles. I, of course, didn't see this until I finished the book (damn you, ebook!) but all the more credit should go to the author because of this. Without the help of the guide, I figured out the rules of the language myself. I started recognizing suffixes and distinguished titles from names. I completely guessed at the pronunciation. It is a sign of Katherine Addison's skill that the language becomes natural after a while and even the longest words rolled off my tongue easily.

So what about the plot, you ask. Well... a young man is now emperor, without most of the education he would need for the task. He finds out that his father's death was not an accident but murder, and also needs to deal with the everyday life of ruling a country. That includes etiquette, arranging a suitable marriage for himself, dealing with disputes over land, and especially with the petition to build a new bridge over the Istandaärtha. That isn't only a beautiful metaphor for what Maia is trying to do as emperor, but also a highly interesting part of the story: bridging and unbridgable river. But as his father's murderers are still on the loose, Maia has to expect assassination attempts on his own life on a daily basis.

If I had to compare the writing to another author's, I would have to go with Robin Hobb. She, too, writes novels that give the impression as if nothing much happens. But they draw you in and show you the protagonist's inner life so closely, it's impossible to put the book down. There are many kinds of suspense. It doesn't always have to be airship battles and epic wars. A young man growing into himself and getting over his past can be just as thrilling as a bloody battle.

The Goblin Emperor is a quiet novel and an intricate character study. Its world-building is extraordinary, the prose is beautiful. The characters grew on my almost sneakily, and when I reached the end, I was struck by the emotional impact it had on me. Addison paints a vivid picture of the Untheileneise court without disrupting the story. If there is ever an illustrated edition of this book, I'll be the first to grab it. Also, I'll join Liz Bourke in begging for a sequel.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!