The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
Solaris, ebook, £5.99
Review by Megan Leigh @m_leigh_g
I thought I was going to hate this book. The first few pages were full of over-the-top courtly language – all pomp and circumstance. I groaned to myself, assuming the rest of the book would follow suit, that it would be a hard slog to get to the halfway mark let alone the end. Never have I been so wrong based on the opening pages. This book was so good I found myself stealing a few minutes to open it whenever possible – while waiting for the kettle to boil, stirring my dinner with one hand and book in the other. I never wanted it to end.
The Goblin Emperor follows Maia, the half-goblin son of the late Emperor, as he comes to terms with his new position as head of government. Maia was never meant to take the throne, but when an accident kills his father and all his brothers, he finds himself at the heart of a court he was always kept apart from. He has a steep political learning curve to master while managing to keep his head on his neck – no easy task. To make matters worse, it looks like it was no accident that killed his family. Will Maia survive his first year as Emperor?
Perhaps this outs me as a language nerd, but I loved the importance Addison placed on language use within the novel. Ritual and courtly behaviours involve precision of language, something Addison deploys beautifully both in the dialogue of her characters and within the prose. The ornate language of the court may have been tiring if it weren’t for the effortless readability of her window-pane prose for the descriptive text and Maia’s internal monologue.
Her precision of language is carried over into complex and intriguing character development. Even the characters we disagree with politically are presented as very real, with defined motivations and understandable actions. I particularly enjoyed seeing characters who openly disagreed with Maia’s ideas but weren’t immediately made into villains as a result – too often, fantasy novels suggest that there is only the one version of ‘good’ and everything else must necessarily be ‘bad’. Addison never falls into that black-and-white trap.
Maia is a fantastic protagonist. While some may argue that he is too morally good, I disagree. He struggled daily with forgiveness, battling with his desire for vengeance. He is pulled in by pretty faces and compliments as much as he understands the manipulative nature of those vying for his attention. And while it is true, he is very good, he still has a spine and pursues his own interests in ways that other inflexibly good characters tend not too. Maia is never dull and the reader roots for him from page one.
The plot of The Goblin Emperor is both sprawling and minimalist. Most of the book is dedicated to small political manoeuvres, with little in the way of direct action. Day after day Maia must face the drudgery involved in running a government. And yet somehow this manages to be endlessly intriguing. Addison’s narrative is nuanced, full of moves and countermoves, and a cast of fickle politicians who are all too familiar to modern readers. While I could have read about Maia’s court forever, for those readers who need a real feeling of build-up towards a main event will be disappointed. There is no clear main path in this novel, no one thing the book is driving towards. Those who demand their fantasy novels follow strict genre tropes might find the book tough to swallow.
While I am not a reader who clings to genre tropes, I found the ending of the novel rather unsatisfying. It simply… ended. I didn’t feel I had closure or a rounding off of an overall narrative arc. Or perhaps the problem was that I just kept wanting to read. I turned the page, looking for the next chapter, but there wasn’t one. When my one complaint about a book is that I wished there were more of it, I’m not really sure that counts as a complaint at all!
Verdict: Brilliant debut and an endlessly intriguing political fantasy. Highly recommended.