The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

If someone had tried to recommend Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor to me based on the fact that it’s an epic fantasy with political intrigue, I probably would have passed. I owned A Game of Thrones for years and kept putting it off because political factions fighting over a crown didn’t sound like my sort of thing, and it wasn’t until I started watching the HBO adaptation that I went back to read the books.

So, luckily for me this book was recommended by friends on GoodReads who praised it for its characters and amazing world-building. I borrowed this from the library based on that and multiple 4-5 star reviews from people I trust.Since I dove into the book, I missed that it was mostly about the unexpected deaths of most of the imperial family, and the sudden coronation of the Emperor’s fourth, and completely unwanted, son, Maia.

“There were no survivors.”

For five pounding heartbeats, the words made no sense. Nothing made sense; nothing had made sense since he had woken with Setheris’ grip hurting his shoulder. and then it was suddenly, pitilessly clear. As if from a very long distance away, he heard his own voice saying, “What caused the crash?”

Maia was never meant to be emperor, and his adolescence was a period where he learned about loneliness, grief and abuse, instead of politics, history and anything beyond the most basic etiquette.

When I realized that this was what the plot was going to focus on, I literally hugged the book in delight. I love reading about people who are suddenly heir and have to navigate the complex rules of the court in order to secure and maintain their rule without any of the formal training or upbringing that would be expected. And watching how people react to their somewhat unorthodox ways is always interesting.

(Some recent examples I can think of are N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms  and John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire.)

Anyway, this book doesn’t disappoint. Maia is eighteen when he becomes heir and his only memory of the court where his father ruled was a brief trip for his mother’s funeral at eight. Afterward he was quickly returned to exile, forgotten by his father, and provided an alcoholic and abusive guardian to “care” for him and give him the barest minimum of education. (A very poor replacement for the mother whom he loved deeply).

Why was his father uninterested in him? Maia’s mother was a goblin, and his father married her only to broker an alliance with the neighbouring kingdom. As soon as she was pregnant, the emperor felt he had done his duty with this match, and pushed her out of the court to a lonely estate in swamp-land.  There’s no surprise then that Maia has such loyalties to his mother and none to a father he barely remembers. But goblin and elvish culture feature heavily in this book.

The elves and goblins in this world are not separate species, but different races with separate cultures and visible differences in their facial structure, skin tone, and eye colour. And of course there’s racism and fear of the other, mostly seen on the elven side as they distrust goblins, but that could also be because the book takes place in the elven kingdom and we know less about what the goblins think. But it is reassuring to see that even in the elven court there are people with goblin heritage and that the differences between the two groups can be bridged.

Happily, a lot can be bridged in this novel, and Maia as a half-elven half-goblin emperor, seems to be the perfect candidate to do so.

As the book progresses, Maia, and the reader are slowly educated in the workings of the courts and the key players. It’s a friendless and thankless job, but Maia perseveres  nonetheless with a mix of open-mindedness, warmth to people of all classes, and sheer stubbornness that makes you want to root for him.

His empathy is one of the things I love most about him, and his respect for women is another, especially considering how little direct experience he has had with them. Both elven and goblin cultures don’t place much value on women beyond the typical marriage and child-bearing roles too-often seen in fantasy or historical settings, yet Maia is different; he wants to balance his desire to protect those that need it, the duties he is bound to as emperor, and the personal dreams that the women in question have. There are several compelling ladies in the story from completely different backgrounds, and I enjoyed all the sub-plots involving each.

For me, Maia was instantly a sympathetic and likable character, and while I rooted for his success, I was distinctly aware of his unhappiness and loneliness. He was isolated in his childhood, and isolated as emperor despite the fact that his new position means he is never, ever, alone.

“Serenity, we cannot be your friend.”

Despite these burdens, Maia perseveres the best he can, and tries to do what’s best for his kingdom even as the demands of the role diminish his own happiness.

There’s a good deal of mystery and intrigue to keep the plot going, and the cast of characters that you’re introduced to grow on you, as you try to decide who’s genuinely trying to help Maia, and who wants him to fail.

“But loyal to what? Not to thee, for thou art merely the last and least favored child of his dead master, who wished thee not on the throne, as well thou know’st.”

The threads in The Goblin Emperor are expertly woven, and by the end of the book I was pleased to find that every sub-plot and relationship were neatly wrapped up to my satisfaction. It wasn’t always clean, or happily-ever-after, yet it was satisfying. While I’d love to read more about Maia and this world, I can understand the author’s decision to have this stand alone. I’m only being greedy by wanting more.

Instead, I’ll have to watch this author to see what else she’s written!

I borrowed this from the library, but if I ever find an ebook version of it on sale, I plan to add it to my permanent library.

“Study the stars. – M.”

Interested in reading this book? Check it out on Goodreads, and/or your favourite bookseller.


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