Author: Katherine Addison
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Humor, Space Opera
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(An advanced copy was provided by the publisher).
The Bridge Builder
The Goblin Emperor was a surprising book. A story about a young naive half goblin, half elf inheriting the throne to an Elfland kingdom is an interesting premise. It’s also a premise that sounds like it could fall into a number of fantasy cliches and other pitfalls. Not only does Addison avoid most of these, she manages to craft one of the most anti-trope fantasy story’s since Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy.
Unlike the nihilism found in Abercrombie’s works, Addison writes a much more hopeful story which is refreshing in a genre that is currently eating up everything that is dark and grim in the world. The book’s strongest point is its titular character Maia, or the Goblin Emperor, who’s personality and his struggles with the burdens of power and feelings of loneliness make him a narrator that’s easy to relate to.
Maia is a half goblin, half elf, and the 19 year old son of the Emperor of the Elflands. After an airship “accident” kills the Emperor and the entire line of succession it’s up to Maia to take his place. He is faced with many challenges, some of the worst of which are dealing with the unfamiliar politics of the Imperial Court, having to chose an appropriate wife, and the realization that his father and half brothers were likely assassinated – which means Maia could be next.
Politics take center stage in the Goblin Emperor, and this is the double-edged sword part of the book. The story is entirely narrated from Maia’s perspective, which means all the political aspects largely only get one view point – Maia’s. What makes politics interesting is the multiple different view points that come when a certain issue is being discussed. I found myself wishing that other characters viewpoints or ideas were expressed, but they aren’t. Maia’s view is all that the reader gets, and this aspect of the story feels like a huge missed opportunity to add more drama, philosophy, and thought provoking arguments.
It’s hypocritical of me to say that though because this really isn’t a political issues type of story. Rather this is a character driven story about Maia and his ability to face the challenges of ruling a kingdom while being completely isolated by his position and his past. He has had no genuine romantic relationships, no genuine friends, and with the exception of his mother, very little genuine familial relationships. Now that he’s emperor he’s going to have an even more difficult time developing the relationships he is desperately craving.
Reading the plot summary had me thinking this book would be like many typical young adult books: cliffhanger chapter endings, awkward moments with your first romance, and some fast paced action scenes in between. The Goblin Emperor almost exclusively avoids all of these things – and for me this was an unexpected surprise that I really started to enjoy as I progressed through the story. Addison not only avoids young adult tropes but common fantasy one’s as well such as including a catastrophic event that threatens the existence of the world, the grim and dark violence that currently dominates today’s fantasy, and the absence of an evil dark lord or ordinary farmer to combat said dark lord.
The originality in this book is something to be respected. The world building, despite the book’s shorter length for a fantasy novel, is handled well and with depth. There is a large cast of characters and the Elvish and Goblin cultures and histories feel hashed out. One of the book’s more unique aspects is the formal speech patterns used by Maia when he’s fulfilling his role as emperor. Maia speaks about himself with the plural “we” and frequently uses archaic forms of the word “you.” This kind of adds – for lack of a better analogy – a Shakespearean sounding effect to his dialogues.
The Goblin Emperor moves at a meditative pace. Although the plots are completely different, the way conflict is handled in this novel reminds me of how conflict was handled in the anime film My Neighbor Totoro. The book has very little violence, and plenty of hopeful messages which is why I would recommend this book to people who are currently having life kick them in the face, or to people who struggle with loneliness. I would also recommended it to people who are looking for an atypical fantasy story.