Book Review : The Goblin Emperor

Book Review : The Goblin EmperorThe Goblin Emperor (The Goblin Emperor, #1) by Katherine Addison
Published by Tor Books on April 1st 2014
Pages: 449
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A vividly imagined fantasy of court intrigue and dark magics in a steampunk-inflected world, by a brilliant young talent.
The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an "accident," he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.
Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.
Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend... and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne – or his life.
This exciting fantasy novel, set against the pageantry and color of a fascinating, unique world, is a memorable debut for a great new talent.

In the past, whenever I read any type of list of the greatest fantasy novels of all time, I soon came to realize that said list always featured The Goblin Emperor. So, for years, I intended to read this universally acclaimed novel. I was incredibly intrigued at the premise of the story—that the exiled and unwanted half-goblin son of the emperor, Maia, finds himself forced to assume the throne after a suspicious airship accident renders his father and all his other remaining heirs dead.  


Though I started reading The Goblin Emperor for its reputation and because of my interest in the premise, I quickly became overwhelmed by this novel, which definitely requires active and concentrated reading. All of the characters have multiple names, addresses, and titles, many of which are incredibly similar to each other. Though The Goblin Emperor does offer a glossary of characters and terms in the beginning of the novel, I’m tragically bad at navigating back and forth on my Kindle, so I ended up having to bring up the Wiki for the series on my phone to refresh my memory of who was who. But before long, I despaired at doing that much and kept forging ahead and figuring out the identity of important characters by context clues and the aid of my hazy memory. 


On top of the truly countless confusing terms and character names, there are also different forms of speech in The Goblin Emperor, informal and formal, as well as informal plural and formal plural, and plenty of rules for when certain types of speech should be used and to whom they should be addressed. Characters are suddenly saying things such as, “thou art,” to certain individuals, when the rest of the time, they are speaking more colloquially. I found this rather jarring and could not advise anyone on when it was proper to use which speech or what each speech was like, even after reading the entire novel.  


“He kept his back straight, his hands relaxed, his face impassive, his ears neutral, and thought about all the things he did not know, had never been taught because no one had imagined an emperor with three healthy sons and a grandson would ever be succeeded to the throne by his fourth and ill-regarded son.”


Despite my continued confusion, I was very invested in the mystery of the deaths of Maia’s family members, but I often found myself reluctant to pick up The Goblin Emperor. Most of the novel is primarily centered on the dealings of the court, political intrigue, and the struggle of Maia to ascertain his role as the emperor, a role for which he was never even remotely educated or prepared. As such, The Goblin Emperor is not exactly a gripping action tale, which is fine, but sometimes I couldn’t help but feel that not much was really happening in the novel, especially when the mystery I found so intriguing was not solved until almost the very end. This is a novel where victories are not waged on the battlefield, but through court maneuverings, such as successfully proclaiming that a surviving sister shall remain unmarried, as per her wishes.

While I often found myself overwhelmed at the many fantasy terms, the cast of characters with conflicting motivations, and explanations of life at court, the main reason I kept reading The Goblin Emperor was because of how much I adored the main character, Maia. Maia grew up unloved and abused in exile, never thought of or cared for by his father, and hated by his cousin, who was forced to raise him (also in exile). Horrified that he must become emperor because of the tragic chain of events, there were so many ways Maia could have handled his newfound power—he could have jealously guarded it, taken little interest in the concerns of his people, or sought vengeance for those who wronged him in the past, but instead, Maia is benevolent, all too aware of his own shortcomings, and immediately concerned with the responsibility he has to his people. Maia has no self-delusions about his inadequacies—his lack of education and preparation to even be a noble at court, let alone emperor—and strives to help the people of his kingdom who need it the most—the merchants, the commoners, and the much despised goblins. 


‘You consider that unjust, Serenity?”

‘We consider it cruel,’ Maia said. ‘And we do not think that cruelty is ever just.’”


Maia’s humanity to everyone, commoner, nobles, scheming politicians, the bereaved, and the dying, as well as those who serve under him, is unfailing. In fact, his common decency shocks and even appalls those who encounter him, as they have never been treated with basic courtesy before their new part-goblin emperor. Having seen his mother treated as a lesser being until she died in destitution and exile, and being half-goblin and half-elf himself, Maia perpetually stands on the corner of each world, belonging to neither, but having regard for both. When tender-hearted Maia experiences fear, uncertainty, nerves, or triumphs, I felt them too. It was so fulfilling to see the character’s journey from unwanted spare to the throne to adored emperor. The Goblin Emperor, even with its court scheming and political machinations is somehow a feel good novel, and as it progresses, we watch Maia start to gain a measure of confidence in himself and for others to finally recognize his character, abilities, and many redeeming qualities.


“‘I can already see the changes,” Shulivar said. ‘You do not hold on to power as your father and grandfather did. You are not afraid to let it go. And you have new ideas, ideas that no emperor before you has ever had.’”


If this slow burn towards a successful and hopeful reign as emperor weren’t enough to make  readers invested, the world-building in The Goblin Emperor is fairly interesting as well. I was particularly intrigued by the concept of Witnesses for the Dead, who are able to see how people died, communicate with the dead, or at least otherwise glean facts about their death from the recently deceased. The court system itself is also passably developed with a Lord Chancellor and panel of advisors involved in the passing of laws. It’s also clear that there are vast differences between the goblin and elven courts, in worship, way of life, and other practices, which remains a recurring theme, although one that was not explored as much as I would have liked, throughout the novel. 


I wish more of the novel had explored these differences in customs and cultures that Maia often found himself grappling with, rather than focusing on the dress of the emperor and the many court rituals. I often found myself skimming the details of the opulent clothes Maia was clad in, as I simply didn’t care. Personally, I don’t find that clothing description adds to my immersion in fantasy worlds, unless the clothes and how they worn are somehow culturally significant. But those that love that kind of detail will surely delight in the descriptions in The Goblin Emperor. I couldn’t help but wish that The Goblin Emperor had spent more time on what the world outside of the court was like, maybe even spending more time in different areas as Maia traveled to take his place on the throne or in some sort of promenade around the world to allow the citizens to see their new emperor.


But ultimately, The Goblin Emperor is very much contained to Maia’s life at court and how he grapples with his lack of preparation for the role that is thrust upon him. His struggles to learn friend from foe and those who only wish to use him, as well as his ultimate inability to have true, actual friends as the emperor, are the true heart of this tale, and the novel deals with these themes with aplomb. Though I liked the novel, I can’t ever really see myself rereading it or rushing out to buy the other books that feature the same world.  I’d recommend The Goblin Emperor to fantasy readers who love court intrigue, political scheming, unique protagonists, and feel good-tales. 



Book Review : The Goblin Emperor - Blogging with Dragons

Posted January 18, 2023 in Book Reviews, Fantasy

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3 responses to “Book Review : The Goblin Emperor

  1. Everyone always told me how much they love this book, so I went out and read it a couple years ago. To this day, I do not understand why it gets the love that it does. It’s confusing, hard to read and understand, and for the most part the main plot was boring. (I am not a huge fan of solely political drama novels.) Maia was a lovely main character, but literally everything else about the book confounded me. I should not need a wiki to read a standalone book! Fantastic review.

    • Thank you! I’m relieved to hear I wasn’t the only who felt that way, since it seems to be so universally loved. I was really not expecting TGE to be this challenging of a read. It took me such a long time to read the entire book and I even took a break from it to read another novel at one point, which is something I never do. I’m glad I read it, but I wouldn’t read it again.

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