Review—The Goblin Emperor (The Goblin Emperor #1) by Katherine Addison

[Goodreads Link]
Published by Tom Doherty Associates / Tor Books Imprint


Content Warnings:
Mentions of past physical and emotional abuse. Mention of blood and scars. Ritual suicide. It should be noted the book handles any possible stressful or intense scenes with delicacy and does not revel in or dramatize any details.

The Good
– Extensive world-building / language-building
– Solid, straight-forward storytelling
– Solid plotting
– Strong characterization / characters feel real
– Maia’s sole POV never leaves wanting
– Healing element to book

The Bad
– The pervading sense of alienation means a long wait for any emotional payoff
– Some will find the prose dry
– Overwhelming vocabulary
– Slow-pacing may put off some

Maia rested his hands on the balustrade and took a deep breath to steady himself; he began to pray, repeating silently the prayer of compassion for the dead he had heard Mer Celehar say that afternoon, trying to say it each time as patiently as Celehar had.

Compassion was all that he could hope for. He could not pray for love or forgiveness; both were out of reach. He could not forgive his father, and he could not love his brothers whom he had never met. But he could feel compassion for them, as he did for the other victims, and it was that he sought more than anything else: to mourn their deaths rather than holding on to his anger at their lives.

Story—★★★★☆ (4.5 stars)
After an airship crash kills the Emperor and his three eldest sons, Maia, his youngest and half-goblin son, inherits the crown. After a life away from court, first with his sickly mother and then under the guardianship of an ill-tempered cousin, Maia is out of his depth. His education on all matters is spotty and his social skills are lacking. The trials and tribulations of an emperor await him, from investigating the airship crash to straightening out the problems his father left him to a coup, and the only things he has to his credit are his inheritance and the desire to rule with fairness and compassion.

If you go into The Goblin Emperor expecting any of the typical fantasy fixingsexample: sword-fights, magic powers, political drama, romance, epic battlesthen you may be disappointed. It is, precisely, the tale of a lonely, alienated, abused young man inheriting the crown of the Elflands and trying to bridge his social and educational failings while doing no harm or inflicting any of the same hurt he’s suffered on others, and that is all it needs to be.

It’s hard to say much else when you read an end product, it feels, that is exactly the way the author intended it to be and is incredibly well done. 

Despite some political upsets, this is not a dramatic or fast-paced book. The Goblin Emperor holds a steady, intentional pacewhich some may find slowthrough the first months of Maia’s reign. Events fall naturally into place and nothing feels forced or excessive.

The settingespecially the language and terminologyis where The Goblin Emperor stands out. It’s lovingly and carefully created, but it is also vast: this is no half-assed endeavour. It’s both a boon and a bane. The world comes alive with it, but it is also so, so overwhelming. Very specific terms exist for how to refer to someone and with similar terms for both house names and character names based on status and gender… well, it’s easy to get lost, even with the guides, and may be off-putting to more casual readers.

Given this is Maia’s tale, we get to know him very well. He’s an easy character to feel for, although those feelings may not be particularly intense. The Emperor has neglected him entirely, first relegating Maia and his mother out of side and mind shortly after his marriage to her, and then under the guardianship of Maia’s bitter and ill-tempered cousin. Maia’s education is sparse: his mother died when he was young and did her best to teach him what was appropriate for an eight-year-old, both of elf and goblin teachings and he learned little under the care of his cousin. Once at court, Maia is reliant on those around him to fill the gaps for him at the risk of looking stupid. Everyone seems to have an opinion of him and an approach to dealing with him: there are rumours he’s a lunatic, half-bred on his goblin side; they try to overwhelm or bully or trick him into accepting their proposal; his decisions go against what his father would do.

Of course, through it all, Maia is lonely and alienated. He hasn’t ever had a friend and no one’s really cared about him since his mother died, and now, as the emperor, he’s in the worst position to do so and struggles with these issues even more now with the burden of the country on his shoulders.

Despite what he’s endured, Maia, firstly, acknowledges he cannot use his position of power to seek vindication and then actively seeks ways to treat others with fairness and kindness. This is where he shines as a character: when he goes against expectations to serve his sister’s happiness despite the pressure to set up an engagement for her; when he seeks out the noblewoman who treated him kindly during his mother’s funeral to repay her kindness; every time he engages in what is good and fair instead of what is easy.

The secondary and tertiary characters are in a strange place where their existence in the world very much revolves around Maiahow could it not, he’s the emperorbut their role in the story doesn’t: they don’t feel devoid of autonomy. Whatever their role, they feel real: they are well-characterized and individual. I suppose my only complaint is that none of them stand out: they are still exactly what’s expected.

Writing Style—★★★★☆
The Goblin Emperor is written in third-person, past tense from Maia’s point of view.
Admittedly, the book is not for everyone. Addison’s writing style is readable and workmanlike in its straightforwardness and effectiveness, but never inelegant or clumsy. It is on thenot necessarily dry, but rather cold in its straightforwardnessside at times, but although this may put off some readers it aids in the sense of alienation. The author’s vocabulary is broad and mature, and along with the overall tone, matches the setting and story well.

Themes and Representation—★★★☆☆
As for representation: it’s in a frustrating place, and could definitely be better. Maia is looked down upon for his goblin heritage. Goblins are black and elves are white, but when I say black here I don’t mean in the human sense. As half-elf and half-goblin, Maia’s skin is grey. It’s frustrating because it’s clearly supposed to be meaningful but also opts out how it’s most meaningful. Gay characters exist, but the approach is odd. The only important, recurring gay character is tortured of his sad, tragic, gay past and Maia specifically notes it’s referred to as forbidden love, although he himself holds no bias. And then, later on, another character is quite blasé about a male character having a male lover. The uneven treatment is on the confusing side, but despite the poor decisions surrounding the character’s past, his tale does have a happy ending.

In general, the book is in the position where it’s set in a patriarchal society and told through the lens of a male character. So, although Maiawith his neglected mother in mindvalues the girls and women in his life and although the women we meet are varied and are shown to have their own lives and interests, they still don’t have their own character arcs, which is something of a shame.

Overall—★★★★☆ (4.5 stars)

Recommended For…
Despite any flaws, The Goblin Emperor is a strangely healing and comforting book to read, and one I heartily recommend. 

Genres: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Steampunk

4 thoughts on “Review—The Goblin Emperor (The Goblin Emperor #1) by Katherine Addison

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