The Goblin Emperor

by Katherine Addison

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: April 2014
ISBN: 1-4299-4640-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 446

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Maia is the child of the current emperor of the Elflands, but not a favored one. He's the half-goblin son of a political marriage to a goblin princess, quickly orphaned away from the capital and kept in seclusion well out of the way of his father and court politics. And in the care of his cousin Setheris: cruel and abusive companionship.

Then the airship Wisdom of Choharo crashes with no survivors, killing everyone in the line of succession. Except Maia.

Maia is in no way prepared to be emperor, but the rules of succession are clear: he is now emperor. We all know from medieval history, both real and fantastic, that clear rules rarely got in the way of aggressive political maneuvering, but Maia's short-term survival is helped considerably by complex factions at play at court (of which he is almost wholly ignorant), and a certain lack of bloodthirstiness in elven politics. Rather than disposing of the unexpected heir, people instead start maneuvering to manipulate and control him. The current Lord Chancellor is the first, beginning his play in the message sent informing Maia of his father's death, and his cousin isn't far behind, but they're only the first two. Meanwhile, Maia, who had never been trained for any sort of court life, has to learn nearly everything about his new life: how to interact with servants, the rituals of court, his new duties, and all of the factions in play.

One might expect that Maia would quickly be reduced to a pawn of one faction or another, but he has two secret weapons. One is that he is a legitimately nice person with a strongly developed sense of empathy. Early on, he lucks into some opportunities to show this and wins some popularity and some allies of his own, particularly among those people not used to being treated with respect. And two, he's had enough of his cousin controlling and abusing him. He's determined to make his own decisions and not take orders from someone else, and now has enough nominal power to possibly pull this off.

The Goblin Emperor is a fantasy of political agency, and a story about political maneuvering, tricky decisions, navigating alliances, and learning politics. There isn't a lot of action here: most of the plot happens in conversation. The tension is high — Maia's situation is precarious — but it mostly involves second-guessing his decisions and actions, and hoping that his weaknesses and ignorance don't get him into too much trouble. That is an extremely tricky book to write. Addison had to walk a tightrope between letting Maia's new responsibilities come unrealistically easily, making him seem like a Chosen One with special plot powers, and having readers get too frustrated with realistically bad decisions and lose their desire to read about him.

Addison walks that tightrope magnificently.

I liked Maia throughout this book, and that's the strength of it. He never felt like the typical fantasy coming of age hero who is magically protected by the plot. He's just a genuine, honest person, reacting to his own past as best he can, making the best decisions he knows how to make. He makes mistakes, but Addison wisely avoids making those mistakes cringe-worthy or too obvious. Instead, they're like bad moves in a chess match: they create problems but also some opportunities, and they're realistically recoverable. And it's a delight to see Maia bring empathy and a disinterested outside perspective to the hothouse mess of court politics and come up with some very creative solutions.

Obviously, the situation that allows Maia to succeed is artificial. This is a fantasy: Maia happens to be just the right person the empire needs, and that's clearly an authorial construction. It may be impossible to write a political story about a well-meaning, naive outsider that isn't a tragedy without a bit of cheating. But Addison hides the cheating well. Maia may be very lucky in the empire he inherits, but it feels coherent and believable.

By the end of the book, Maia has dealt with everything from international diplomacy to the incredibly complex negotiations around further heirs to the empire. And (realistically) he doesn't stay lucky throughout the book: eventually, no matter how careful he tries to be, he angers some powerful people. I enjoyed every step along the way, and would have happily read more about Maia.

In my personal ranking, this was second only to Ancillary Sword in the nominees for the 2015 Hugo, and I wouldn't disagree too strongly with someone who argued it was better. It's not a typical sort of fantasy, but it's one I enjoyed very much. Recommended.

One warning: consider going to the back of the book and reading the glossary at the start. There may be some mild spoilers in there, but it also explains the title conventions in the empire, and some of those titles look very much like proper names. If, like me, you don't read this until the end of the book, you may find yourself horribly confused by several apparently similarly-named characters.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-09-15

Last modified and spun 2015-09-19