The Goblin Emperor

The Goblin Emperor
Katherine Addison

I haven’t written a book review in quite some time, so Katherine Addison’s newest seems a good place to pick back up. I didn’t initially plan on reading this, as everything about it screams “tween book,” from the name to the cute cover. The Goblin Emperor has steadily drawn good reviews though, so I decided to check it out. I”m glad that I did – this is a lovely, charming book. It’s hopeful, positive, complex, and beautifully written. In other words, Mom, since I know you’re reading this, go get The Goblin Emperor from the library. I think it’s what you’ve been looking for.

The plot has been well-covered elsewhere, so I will be brief. Maia, our erstwhile hero, is the half-elven, half-goblin son of the elven emperor, banished to a remote outpost and mostly forgotten. Within a paragraph or two however, the emperor and all his heirs are killed in an airship crash, leaving Maia next in line for the throne. Maia is dragged back to the palace, crowned, and forced to learn his way around a court that never cared much about him or expects even the barest hint of competence from him. This being the happy tale that it is, Maia slowly grows into his role, finds his way around the stupendously detailed and intricately described elven kingdom, and engages in mild hijinks. Addison gives us many fascinating characters along the way, with their factions, conspiracies, friendships, and pasts. It seems like a setup for adolescent Life Lessons, but is actually much more. The worldbuilding is first rate, the politics have depth, and the author doesn’t shy away from many realities of imperial rule. Bad things happen to some people, but never gratuitously or gleefully, and the vibe remains hopeful throughout.

Let me just mention a few expectations I had for the book that were happily betrayed. Biggest of all is the deceiving YA veneer, a quick way to put me off. (Nothing wrong with YA, I just have no patience for reading about children while I spend so much time worrying about my own.) Maia is eighteen and coming into adulthood here, but his late adolescence is mercifully not the focus. In fact, there are plenty of situations and issues that I think would go over many teens’ heads, particularly the politics and culture of Maya’s kingdom, which can be dense and unforgiving at times. The book is rightfully not marketed at youth, title and cover art notwithstanding. Semi-related to this is romance. No love triangles to deal with, minimal angst caused by the opposite gender, no moon-faced longing, and a coldly realistic portrayal of royal marriage. (Again, nothing wrong with romance, I simply have no desire to deal with anyone else’s broken heart. I’m long since done with all that falling in love crap.) Finally, and perhaps most surprising, this isn’t a tale about racism. Everything is primed for an allegory of the mixed ethnicity child gaining everyone’s grudging acceptance as we all learn a bit more about tolerance, but the train veers off these tracks quickly and decisively. Maia’s goblin blood is an issue to be sure, but not in any way that we might expect. Elves and goblins are roughly equals in this world, with their own kingdoms and cultures, but a relationship that seems to be generally free of hierarchy. What could have been a story about racial subjugation, immigration, or some other contemporary problem instead portrays a relationship roughly as fraught as the modern day English and French. My feelings about diversity in SF are much more positive than romance or teen-agers, but I still enjoyed the gentle subversion of my predictions.

On the other hand, Addison digs at some fascinating questions with what the book really is. David Brin is on record multiple times with his opinion that we humans somehow crave feudalism, that something in our lizard brains secretly loves kings and emperors. I am generally skeptical of this, but then I look around at pop culture and the news. We won’t even start with Disney princesses, but what really kills me is the British royal family. I live in a country that was founded in opposition to hereditary rulers, and yet I see thousands of Americans, many with ancestors who died fighting for (a form of) democracy, getting all weepy over Princess Kate and her stupid weddings and babies. It makes me want to don a tricorn hat, cross the Delaware River in the snow, and put some Hessian mercenaries to the sword while waving the Declaration of Independence in my non-bayonet hand. Maybe Brin is on to something after all.

This digression has a point. I wonder if part of the broad appeal to The Goblin Emperor is the young emperor himself. He is, in a way, the idealized projection of ourselves as a just king. Maia espouses tolerance, gender equality, respect for learning and the sciences, and the good of the realm above self-aggrandizement. He has his flaws, is awkward with pretty women, occasionally crumples under stress, and really just wants a friend, not unlike many of us. He is aware of the inequality, poverty, and suffering in his empire and seems to want to do something about it. I quite like Maia and think he would be someone to admire, were he actually running a neighboring kingdom. Canada, for example.

And yet, while Maia is an Everyman, he is an Everyman born to an emperor. Maia is not the head of state because he is qualified, or because the voice of the people chose him, but instead through the luck of birth and a deeply tragic transportation mishap. Can he really wield supreme executive authority just because some watery tart threw a sword at him? Haven’t we done away with most royalty precisely because Maia is such an aberration? I doubt that Addison wrote this purely to question our views of government, but this is the sort of thing that occupies my brain during descriptions of royal finery or ceremony. I admit to possibly being a weirdo.

This is the scenic route to my conclusion, which is that The Goblin Emperor is utterly charming. There is a set of readers that will no doubt demand more action (flying heads!), more magic (fireballs!), or just more wide screen drama (epic battles!), but they will miss the charms of this relatively quiet book. I hope there is more to the story here, because I cared about the people involved and want to spend more time with them. They felt real, which is more than can be said for far too many stories out there.