Book Review: The Goblin Emperor (Katherine Addison)

Review: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
Fantasy / Tor /  Standalone Novel

“‘In our inmost and secret heart, which you ask us to bare to you, we wish to banish them as we were banished, to a cold and lonely house, in the charge of a man who hated us. And we wish them trapped there as we were trapped.’ 
‘You consider that unjust, Serenity?’ 
‘We consider it cruel,’ Maia said. ‘And we do not think that cruelty is ever just.’ ”

The Emperor had four sons, and would have been happy to see any of them follow him on the throne – any, that is, apart from his youngest, neglected and maligned half-goblin son, Maia, who has been kept away from him since birth. A tragic twist of fate, however, leaves Maia inheriting the throne, alone and utterly uninformed about the intricacies of both palace life and the empire’s political situation. Maia struggles against alienation and his own awkwardness and obliviousness to try and make the best of the unexpected (and dangerous) situation.

The Goblin Emperor was a fun and refreshing change of pace for me in terms of epic fantasy. It’s a rarity: a feel-good book about courtly intrigue and political machinations. You put it down feeling, in spite of the manipulation, classism, racism, assassination attempts and general villainy, convinced that ultimately people are good-hearted and generous. It’s strange to think that could feel subversive, but in the current landscape of epic fantasy, it seems like a long time since I read a book as optimistic as this. What I liked about The Goblin Emperor comes down to two elements. One is the worldbuilding, which is especially impressive and intricate. There are some great touches of language building, like the way that Maia is forced to constantly use formal plural pronouns to refer to himself once he becomes Emperor (turning his spoken dialogue into sweeping, stately pronouncements like “We are most pleased”). If I have any complaint, it’s that occasionally the worldbuilding was a bit too much and it became difficult to keep track of characters and titles.

The second reason to pick up this book is the character of Maia, who is one of the most sympathetic and genuine protagonists I’ve read in a long time. He is quiet, thoughtful, polite, and passive, all of which make him a fairly unusual hero. He is sensitive and so eminently likable that a huge part of the book’s appeal comes from rooting for him as he struggles to navigate the deadly politics and complicated etiquette of palace life. Maia is just so fundamentally good that it is heartbreaking at times, and you just want so badly for him to be happy.

Overall, The Goblin Emperor was a charming and unexpectedly addictive read. I don’t want to sell it as unconventional or genre-defying, exactly, but it is a well-written and creative diversion from what often seems like a long string of assertive, badass protagonists in gritty, grimdark stories. It was wonderful to read something about a lovable, relatable hero with an ultimately hopeful message about finding joy and belonging with whatever hand you’ve been dealt.

If you enjoy________________, you should pick up The Goblin Emperor:

  • courtly intrigue
  • politics
  • epic fantasy with detailed worldbuilding
  • feel-good novels

If you dislike ________________, you may want to avoid The Goblin Emperor

  • content including discussion of child abuse
  • made-up languages, or lack patience for meticulous worldbuilding
  • books without much action

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