Robyn Reviews: The Goblin Emperor

‘The Goblin Emperor’ is a quiet fantasy novel with real emotion and heart. It avoids the battle scenes and epic magical powers usually associated with the fantasy genre, instead focusing entirely on court politics and one man trying to figure out how to rule a country without mortally offending – or being deposed by – all his subjects. There are moments of despair, of anger, of pain – but ultimately this is a hopeful story, an ideal balm for a tough day.

Maia, the emperor’s youngest son, has lived most of his life in exile. An unwanted reminder of the emperor’s fourth wife – and a stain on the Elvish line for his half-Goblin heritage – he’s never been educated on the ways of the Imperial Court, or ever expected to set foot in it. However, when an accident wipes out his father and his three elder brothers, Maia finds himself in the strange position of suddenly being crowned Emperor. He has no friends, no advisors, and no knowledge of court politics. Even worse, the accident might not have been so accidental – and the assassins could come back for Maia at any moment. Surrounded by scheming politicians and gossips, Maia can trust nobody. He must adjust to his new life as emperor and try to get to grips with the intricacies of court life before someone sees fit to depose him – or worse.

Maia is one of the sweetest fantasy protagonists of all time. He cares about everyone and just wants everyone to be happy – an impossible task when running an entire empire. He’s intelligent but quiet, and his lack of poise and tendency to get overwhelmed and flustered mean most others see him as an idiot. More than anything, Maia is lonely. Since his mother died when he was eight he hasn’t had a true friend – his guardian after her death was abusive, leaving him mentally and physically scarred, and as the emperor he can’t be seen to favour anyone. Maia is constantly making mistakes, but he tries his hardest to do the right thing despite his lack of education and understanding. His growth throughout the novel is wonderful to see, and every time he stands up for himself it makes you want to applaud.

While Maia is the only point-of-view character, there are several major supporting characters. Maia can’t be too friendly with any of them, so their depths aren’t fully explored, but all of them still feel well-rounded. There’s Cala and Beshelar, his sworn bodyguards – Cala overly relaxed and informal, Beshelar the complete opposite and a stickler for formality and protocol. There’s Csevet, Maia’s secretary who ensures he isn’t completely clueless what’s going on and essentially runs the empire while he figures out the basics. On the flipside, there’s the Lord Chancellor, a man who starts the novel by trying to delay Maia’s coronation and the rest making his job as emperor as difficult as possible – despite being outwardly helpful. There’s also his late father’s fifth wife, now a widow, who despises him for keeping her own children off the throne. There are hundreds more named characters – which can be overwhelming, and the novel likely doesn’t need so many, but it gives a good impression of how busy court life is and how many people an emperor has to remember.

Aside from Maia, it’s the worldbuilding that makes this novel great. The Elflands in ‘The Goblin Emperor’ have their own patterns of speech – with several different grades of formality depending on who is being addressed – distinct titles, a complex government and political hierarchy, and of course tangled relationships between the prominent families within the Elflands and the other lands on their borders – including the Goblin homeland. The detail is staggering, and Addison weaves it all in with great skill, dripfeeding information to both Maia and the reader gradually so its never overwhelming. The speech patterns in particular take a while to get used to – as do the various titles for people (denoting gender, marital status, and importance, among other things) – but after a while things start to make sense, and it makes the experience in a different culture more immersive.

The plot takes a backseat – this is more a study of a fictional culture, and to a lesser extent a character study of Maia. Events do happen – slowly, with no real overlying arc beyond the development of Maia’s character and the discovery of what caused his father and brothers to die – but there’s more focus on the minutiae of running a country, something which is glossed over in most books. There’s a great deal of attention paid to how it feels to be emperor – the lack of privacy, the inability to truly confide in anyone, the knowledge that everyone is using you for some sort of political gain. There are also smaller threads – Elfland society is patriarchal, and women’s rights are a recurring theme. The issue of having Goblin blood in an Elf-run society is raised less than the blurb would suggest – it seems to be regarded as more of an issue by Maia himself than anyone else, an interesting exploration of internalised racism. Moral dilemmas are regularly posed for both Maia and the reader to consider. Some passages can grow a little tedious – court life is repetitive – but the overall effect is immersive and intriguing.

There are minor issues. Some of the naming customs, combined with the sheer number of characters, mean that certain characters can become very difficult to tell apart and its not always clear why the reader should care. There’s a helpful glossary provided, but having to flick to and from a glossary on a regular basis affects the flow. The book is also probably a shade long – at 450ish pages its average or even short for epic fantasy, but certain sections do start to stray too much into banality and could be trimmed down without affecting the books overall feel. In general, however, its a very strong book, one that takes a very different angle to most fantasy novels and carries it off remarkably.

In summary, ‘The Goblin Emperor’ is a quiet and intimate fantasy novel that acts as a study of court politics and a character study of a young emperor rather than telling a complete story. For those interested in political machinations and what happens in fantasy kingdoms after all the fighting, or just looking for a heartwarming and hopeful read, this is the book for you.

A sequel set in the same world but focusing on a different character, ‘The Witness for the Dead’, was published by Solaris on 22nd July 2021.

Published by Solaris
Paperback: 21st March 2019