The Goblin Emperor is a well-crafted novel of political intrigue and character journey. The half goblin-half elf Maia finds himself completely unprepared to become emperor when his emperor father and his three older brothers are killed in an airship crash. Maia’s father was a racist, self-centered, jingoist, short-sighted jerk of an elf who needed to be told “No” or “You’re just stabbing yourself in the foot if you keep acting like a jerk” a lot more times than he ever was.
I enjoyed The Goblin Emperor, especially the character of Maia and some of the supporting characters. Maia lives in a rich evocative world with intriguing politics and power distribution. It was very much a feudalistic system with power concentrated in the hands of a few males, which does work into the plot. Addison does take on the inequity of the role of women in her world. They are second-class citizens who must answer to the heads of their families and thus denied education and are generally not permitted to work. Lower-class and middle-class workers deal with mistreatment at the hands of by too-powerful nobles and corrupt employers. The mistreatment of women and workers figure into the plot.
Ultimately The Goblin Emperor was a coming-of-age character story, rather than a story driven by plot. I enjoyed the way Maia started to find himself and then his work to determine what he needed to do to be a good emperor. It’s also one of the few stories that shows what happens after a main character becomes a ruler. I'm not the first to notice this.
Maia wants to find out who caused the airship crash that killed his father and brothers, this mystery doesn’t drive the story. Much of the investigation occurs off stage and the detective work is done by other characters. As emperor, Maia doesn’t investigate. He holds meetings. He has minions to investigate.
Normally this type of character story isn’t my thing. Yet I would read another book written in this world. I think that says something about the quality of this book and its ability to tell the story of Maia. (I like coming of age/rite of passage stories to have a lot more action in them.)
The Goblin Emperor was solid, well-crafted in terms of plot and prose, but it didn’t reverberate with me. That’s because the style of telling created distance between myself and Maia’s experiences. This is a problem I find in a lot of literary fiction. I prefer a deep, immersive point of view. The Goblin Emperor doesn’t deliver that. As a teen librarian, I want my coming of age stories to be visceral and immediate, just like the young people I work with. (Actually, I like all my fiction that way.)
So The Goblin Emperor is not my top pick for the Hugo. That’s not to say this novel isn’t someone else’s catnip. It’s made my mental list of books to recommend to lovers of literary who want to try a fantasy book. I would certainly recommend this book to teens and young people who enjoy high fantasy and think Frodo is cooler than Strider.
The world of The Goblin Emperor was interesting and rich, it didn’t show me anything new that I haven’t found in other second-world fantasy or alt. history steampunk worlds. As a librarian, I totally dug the pneumatic tubes to deliver messages.
!!! SPOILER COMING UP !!!
A huge plot flaw was the use of magic at a key point felt like it came out of left field. The use of a cantrip that kills an assassin was totally unexpected because I had no idea that Maia’s body guards or anyone else could do magic. While there’s some hints of magic with the Witnesses for the Dead, I left the book not understanding the role magic has in this world, who can wield it and what does it cost the user. Since magic (among other things) is a trope in second-world fantasy, readers expect to have enough exposition or expository hints so we can continue to suspend our disbelief.
Some might think this other flaw is nitpicky but I found myself often confused because too many characters and places had names starting with the same letters. For example, Csevet is Maia’s secretary, Chavar is the Lord Chancellor, Cala is one of his guards, Csorus is the Emperor’s widow, Thara Celehar is a Witness for the Dead (AKA investigator,) and Corat’ Dav Arhos is the palace in Barizhan, the land of the goblins. And that’s just the Cs. It might have helped if Addison offered a bit more description of character’s physical appearance or quirks.
For me, the biggest flaw was building in racism into this world but never really addressing having Maia address it directly even if only in his mind. While I appreciate that we weren’t hit over the head, Maia as a character only considered the divide between the pale Elves and the black Goblins as one of the power plays between the two countries and cultures.
Maybe they don’t call it racism in the Elflands but it’s there. Elves are white and pale and from noble families and are the powerbrokers in this kingdom. They are to be trusted, even though some of them basically are walking white-privilege jerks. Goblins aren’t to be trusted, do nasty things, etc. As I would read what some of the characters though of Goblins, I found it similar to the raciest vitriol that it was once acceptable to think and say in this country.
Maia constantly notices the difference in his darker skin and others’ paler skin in the court and in others who aren’t in court who he meets because they bring messages, etc. Maia’s few interactions with his absent father are about Maia’s mother’s looks. His cruel guardian called him names based on his race, as well as emotionally and physically abused Maia.
Maia is not a dark as a pure goblin. So in a sense, he is the product of a racially mixed marriage. Along with all his other issues, he has to deal with issues associated with the way the upper class eleven culture regards elf-goblin unions, even though his dad was emperor and his mom was the daughter of the leader of the goblin’s.
Addison presents the issue of skin-color as more about cultural differences or ignorance over supposed cultural differences, as jingoism and as nobles protecting their powerbases. However, some of the rumors about Maia’s supposed lack of intelligence and potential blood thirstiness struck me as the same stereotypes that racists still use in our real world.
Maia encounters goblins and people born of mixed goblin-elf marriages who aren’t part of the nobles or who are not as rich or powerful as the nobles at court. This shows the reader that what happens at court may not be reflective of regular folks in the Elflands. (Yippee for the common folk!)
Granted Maia (and the author) had a lot to deal with in this book, but his character never tackles racism. And there were opportunities to do so. At least two characters realized that they were willing to believe badly of Maia because of racist crap other told them and they even apologize to Maia for believing the worst of him. But these characters articulated that it was the prevalence of racism in the upper classes that allowed them to believe as they did. Maia who at this point in the novel has grown more astute in his verbal interactions never calls these people on this. Nor in his internal dialog does he wonder if they they were predisposed to think the worst of Maia because of his race.
The Goblin Emperor is very different than Addison’s four-book series Labyrinths published under her real name Sarah Monette. If you wish Chealsea Cain wrote second world fantasy in evocative prose, grab Monette’s books wherever you can. Fair warning: the subject of this series is as dark as the writing is lush.
I’m bummed that I didn’t enjoy The Goblin Emperor more. It’s a solid novel, just not a Hugo winner in my mind.