I’ve been hearing nothing but praise for The Goblin Emperor since it came out last year – most reviews used the words “optimistic” and “endearing”. I like well-done grimdark (like the First Law series) but I love both court-intrigue and hero-driven fantasy, so I really had to read this.
We follow Maia, the youngest son of the recently deceased emperor, from the moment that he receives the news that his father and brothers are dead and he is now the emperor of the Elflands. Maia is the half-goblin son of the emperor’s least favoured wife, and has grown up in isolation, with no resources and no knowledge of the court and its politics. He’s surrounded by people that either want to take advantage of his naivete or don’t want him around at all, and he has to figure things out very quickly, or he’s going to either end up dead or a puppet.
Maia is one of the best protagonists that I’ve encountered in a while – he’s smart (even if he isn’t knowledgeable), kind, and determined to do the best job he can – I know that sounds like a lot of generic fantasy protagonists, but Maia seems more like a real person, you can actually observe his mind at work. For example, in The Wheel of Time, Rand is ostensibly smart because he ends up making a bunch of decisions about how people should run their kingdoms and they’re good ones – don’t tax the people too much, encourage science, etc. – but you never see the process by which he makes them, and so you just have to take for granted that he’s smart. But in The Goblin Emperor, you observe the process by which Maia figures out when he needs to make a decision and when he needs more information (and when he’s just completely overwhelmed and asks for help) and you come to the conclusion that he’s pretty smart. His kindness is simlar – Maia is kind in a lot of subtle ways and he’s always empathetic towards people, even those that try to kill him. His determination to do a good job is endearing – he doesn’t do it for some noble ideals of serving his country, he just doesn’t think of himself and his wishes as important, so of course he does a good job. There’s a particularly funny scene where someone suggests that he abdicate and join a monastery, and he actually wants to do it because it would be so much easier.
I was worried that Maia would be plunged into a implausible world where he couldn’t trust anyone and everyone would be out to get what they could from him, but most of the characters just wanted to do their job and do it well. There are plenty of people that liked the old emperor and don’t really appreciate the fact that he’s in power now, but very few of them want to do something about it. That’s not to say that there aren’t plots to be foiled, but they’re less prevalent that I had feared. The Goblin Emperor is a much subtler book than than that.
I don’t want to give off the impression that this book is all rainbows and sunshine with no complexity, though – there are a whole variety of people and situations. One of the more notable ones is Maia’s relationship with his cousin and abusive guardian Setheris – it is fraught with terror, even after their power dynamic changes drastically. The experience of growing up abused and ignored informs his decisions heavily, though, he is able to recognize the people that just seem to want power and attention and deal with them appropriately. There are a bunch of other situations where there’s a lot more than meets the eye (the whole arc with Min Vechin, the friendship between Maia and his personal guards, his grandfather’s visit) and it all comes together beautifully because of the author’s superb characterization.
The only (very minor) complaint I have with this book is that the names / places / people have a lot of similar sounding names and it was really hard to get them straight – I’m usually really good at that, so it was doubly frustrating. It helped me empathize with Maia’s predicament since I was also somewhat overwhelmed, so maybe that’s why? There’s a guide at the end of the book that explains the naming scheme (no spoilers), and that was very helpful – I only wish I had found it earlier.
I’m sure this will be one of the best books I read this year, and I read it in February! I’m looking forward to reading some of the author’s other works (Katherine Addison is a psueodonym for Sarah Monette).
- “Valour and Vanity” by Mary Robinette Kowal
- “City of Stairs” by Robert Jackson Bennett