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The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
Book Name: The Goblin Emperor
Author: Katherine Addison
Publisher(s): Tor Books
Formatt: Hardcover / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Steampunk
Release Date: April 1, 2014 (US) September 1, 2014 (UK)

A few days before I started reading Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, I picked up Patrick Rothfuss’s novella, The Slow Regard of Silent Things. Though the stories were different, there was a similarity in the way both books defied convention – there’s no brooding antihero, no large-scale conflicts, not even a tangible plot outside of an author who says, “Here’s an interesting character and here’s what it would be like to follow them around as they adapt to their situation.”

To be honest, it was a refreshing change of pace, and I say that as someone who relishes a good antihero. Both The Goblin Emperor and The Slow Regard of Silent Things are character-centric stories filled with quiet moments, where every word is imbued with two meanings – what’s on the surface and what lurks beneath. While Rothfuss’s Auri lives in silence and reclusion – there’s not a single word of dialogue in the entire story – Addison’s Maia is constantly surrounded by people, and The Goblin Emperor is almost entirely about the conversations Maia has with others and the underlying meaning of each word.

The Goblin Emperor tells the tale of Maia, a young half-goblin prince who has been exiled far from court his entire life. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an airship crash, Maia is suddenly thrust from life with his verbally and physically abusive cousin, to the imperial court, where he has the power to command all around him.

Maia is like the Christmas of fantasy protagonists – he’s so unrelentingly kind and concerned for everyone around him that the reader almost can’t help but come away feeling just a little better. In fact, Maia is so much a return to the white knight style of fantasy protagonist that in an interview with Addison, thebooksmugglers.com asked her if the book was written as a response to the grimdark subgenre.

“I wanted to write a story (reflecting my own ethical beliefs, which I get more fierce about as I grow older) in which compassion was a strength instead of a weakness,” Addison wrote in response. “Grimdark is, in some ways, another iteration of Byronism, and it has the same potential flaw of becoming self-congratulatory about its darkness, pessimism, and cynicism. After a while – and this is, as I said, speaking as a practitioner of grimdark myself – I just get tired of it. It was a relief to write someone who didn’t think that way, a relief to write a world that didn’t work that way. Grimdark is not the only color.”

While the story swirls around a variety of plots – Maia’s arranged marriage, plots to depose Maia’s brief reign and the investigation into whether his father’s death was an accident – the story is ultimately a character study of Maia and his adaptation to life as an emperor. What makes the story truly unique is Addison’s ability to transcend the common beats we would so often see in a story like this.

When Maia first arrives at court, he’s faced with many people mourning the death of his father in a way he simply couldn’t, and as a result he goes through the motions and refuses to indulge in the petty acts of disrespect that he recalls from his own mother’s funeral. Later, when he has the opportunity to punish his cousin for his past abuses, he foregoes the opportunity, and finds his cousin a respectable position where he and Maia will never need to interact again. Even when he mildly flexes his imperial power, he quickly tells himself, “It was heady, but he knew it was also poison.”

Later in the book, Maia meets his goblin grandfather, the Great Avar of Barizhan, a large, affable goblin who is almost instantly likeable. But while Avar is kind, Maia still recalls that even though Maia’s father was terrible to his mother, his grandfather never stepped forward to protect her or Maia. There’s a tension in that relationship that lends the story a depth you oftentimes wouldn’t see in a typical “lost heir” story such as this one.

The emotional depth Addison brings to each relationship means the story doesn’t need action scenes to be gripping. Oftentimes, the people around Maia have political reasons to hate him but personal reasons to like him, or they seem to like him but Maia can never be certain whether their friendship is genuine or they seek the emperor’s favor. Whatever their motivations, Maia and the reader find themselves paying attention to each word, each description, in their search for clues.

Addison’s worldbuilding is equally interesting as we slowly learn about the world and the court politics alongside Maia. Admittedly, the number of characters we meet is overwhelming, and if anyone can keep all the characters and their elvish names straight, they’re far better readers than I. On several occasions, a character requested an audience with Maia and I couldn’t remember who they were until the conversation began simply because many of the names are similar, and many of the characters have elvish titles as well, making it doubly difficult to keep track.

After I finished the book (I was reading on a Kindle) I discovered the glossary in the back, so I would recommend making use of the glossary of terms and characters to keep it all straight. Otherwise, the court culture is fascinating, and small details such as the switch from formal to informal language in the midst of a conversation are laden with meaning. In some ways, the worldbuilding, interest in language and childlike fancy of the protagonist make me think those who like The Hobbit will also like The Goblin Emperor.

There’s no Battle of the Five Armies, nor are there any warriors, assassins or antiheroes, but it finds a way to pull you in all the same. If you’re looking for a fantasy book that doesn’t rely on violence to tell its story, this may be your book of the year.


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