I can’t say with much certainty I knew what to expect from The Goblin Emperor, or what I wanted to receive. Regardless, I didn’t get it. The Goblin Emperor is the story of a half-goblin/half-elf named Maia, 4th son and unwanted heir to the emperor who is relegated away from the royal court when his mother passed away at age 8. Ten years later in a freak accident, his father the emperor and his 3 heirs also passed, making Maia the rightful heir to… Well, everything. The only issue is he didn’t grow up with any meaningful education, or understanding of the inner court workings, customs, or families. In truth he was woefully the worst man for the job. But through his ignorance, through his kindness, through his desire to do and be the best for the empire as a whole, he comes into his own person.
Don’t misunderstand my earlier statements. Just because I didn’t get what I wanted from the book, doesn’t mean I didn’t get something entirely different instead. It’s a delightful story of changing times and differing moralities – a novel that’s honestly more court intrigue than fantasy, despite the fact that the world is inhabited by nothing but elves and goblins. The advanced praise on the cover sleeve actually warned me of that fact before I started reading and even then I wasn’t ready for it. Author Scott Lynch wrote “Challenging, invigorating, and unique. If court intrigue is your wine of choice, The Goblin Emperor is the headiest vintage I’ve come across in years.” Nothing can sum the book up more.
It’s unfortunate I read the book with the intent and mood of reading a fantasy entailing epic adventure (whereas this book literally takes place within the palace and nothing else). I’m of a mind to actually go back and reread the book in the right mindset. I’d probably enjoy it a little more than I did. As it was, it took me until almost halfway into the book to get to the point where I was truly enjoying myself. Which is unfortunate because by the end I wished it would have kept going.
My biggest quarrel with the book is also it’s greatest achievement. Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) was able to create a fully functioning society and language for her elves and goblins, but it was almost too intricate for a leisurely read. The prefixes given to characters based on gender, marital status, and/or rank are all much too similar, and get far too confusing, especially with the equally confusing and syllable-laden house names and first names given to characters. It was almost too rich a “vintage” for my tastes.
But despite it all we are introduced to one of the most genuinely likable characters in all my experience with fiction. Despite the gossiping behind his back, the racism apparent, the beatings he endured in exile, the betrayal he receives by those close to him, Maia wishes no harm on anyone. Rather he learns to mix tact with kindness to form new means of rule, to be notably different from emperors past, including his father. When he feels betrayed, you as the reader do also, and the brief moments where he’s able to enjoy moments in life, you wish him to revel in them – because he so deserves them. He has no friends and can have none, but like the building of literal bridges he too finds bridges to becoming closer to others in his own unique way.
In retrospect it’s a beautiful book, and a sharp turn from your general fantasy fiction. If you’re looking for adventure, for glory, for epic fights… The Goblin Emperor is not for you. But if you want a mystery, a drama, a zero to hero tale – this book is for you. Just be ready to take it slow so as to understand the vocabulary introduced (which is made easier by an index found in the back) and the culture you’re thrown into, quite like our hero Maia. And be sure you’re in the mood to read this novel. This is said to be no more than a one-off book, not the first in a series, and that befits the story.