The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison is a good character driven story that is very well written but lacks an engaging story.
So far this review is the hardest review I have had to write. I liked The Goblin Emperor but I couldn’t look past a lot of the short comings. It is a shame, because it is a good book, in fact it could of been a great book, but unfortunately it fell short. I couldn’t decide to give this a 3 or a 4, so just know that it is a good 3. To have any doubt in my mind made me realize that a 3 was warranted.
The Goblin Emperor is a story about a young half elf, half goblin prince that is last in the line for succession to the throne and is put away by his royal family. A tragedy strikes and the Emperor and all his sons die in a suspicious way. Maia, the half elf, half goblin prince, becomes the Emperor through this tragedy. He must navigate the waters of an imperial court that is hostile towards him while dealing with his own insecurity and doubt.
Maia is a highly likable character. He was abused by his guardian and never educated properly. When he becomes Emperor, he knows little of what to do, but his mother’s teachings years ago help him remain focused. He is a good man that sees the need in people’s lives. He wants to treat everyone with respect but in a society that demands condescension to those below your own level, he finds it difficult. I really liked Maia and his character is what made me like The Goblin Emperor as much as I did. His growth as a character was really well written by Addison. He goes from an insecure nothing to a man that everyone respects and admires.
Addison is a great writer and there were a few times I had to look up a word in the dictionary. The prose was soothing and calming. This is the type of book that makes you feel good, comfortable. The style of prose is inviting and well groomed.
The problem is that along with the prose being comfortable, so was the plot. The plot did not surprise me at all. The two main conflicts in the story were rather sub-par. There was only one scene in the entire book that had any sort of excitement or danger and for a fantasy book that is just too few in my opinion. There just wasn’t any excitement in the plot and that made me so disappointed because it is a good book, just not much fun. Maia’s growth and reaction to events is what drives the entire book forward and not any excitement in the plot. Not once did I feel that Maia was in danger or that it would end in any other way than everything working out. The book felt sterile.
The other problem with The Goblin Emperor was that there just wasn’t enough different with this world than our own world. The most inspired and imaginative part of the entire book was this society’s view on guilt and punishment. However, everything else was just renamed things from our own world. I don’t mind fantasy novels having a lot of strange and exotic names and titles but when those positions are direct mirror images of our societal titles but just with the name changed, it lacks imagination.
The titles, formal greetings, and names in The Goblin Emperor didn’t bother me much. I took notes at the beginning and used the information in the back of the book. Unfortunately I read almost 300 pages before I noticed the titles page before the glossary in the back. In all it wasn’t too complicated to know who was talking to whom.
Addison’s intention was to create a rich, unique, and complex Imperial Court that was heavy on intrigue and subtleties while writing a character driven story. There just wasn’t enough fleshed out interpersonal relationships with Maia though. Maia and the people around him withdrew themselves from each other because of him being Emperor but that caused the possibility for complex friendships and love to be rather shallow. At the end I was happy that Maia had a handful of people that he could trust and be friends with but even then he made it a point to make sure to distinguish between those relationships he had and true friendship. If we would have seen Maia fall in love, form close relationships, and then have the conflicts that came up in the story, it would have been much more exciting. I just think that Addison was slightly restricted with the relationships because of her take on what it meant to be an Emperor in this world.
I am happy to have read The Goblin Emperor though. The tone and pacing of the book was different for fantasy and at times there were hints of a more literary fantasy book that would exceed my expectations. However, the plot just didn’t excite me, and there were few poignant relationships during the meat of the novel. I will keep an eye out for more of Katherine Addison’s books and check out her other books under Sarah Monette because she is a talented writer that I think can succeed in becoming a true literary fantasy author.