If you are engaged in the fantasy genre, chances are that you have heard of Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor before. This stand-alone novel about court intrigue is a popular recommendation from a number of respectable reviewers and is considered by many to be a modern classic. However, I don’t trust anything I haven’t read myself, so I set aside some time this week to dive into this relatively short novel to see if my feelings match those of the general reviewer populace. Turns out that The Goblin Emperor is indeed a good book, but I also found myself noticing a lot of problems under the hood that kept it from achieving true greatness.
First, let’s discuss the plot quickly. The Goblin Emperor follows the story of Maia, an 18-year-old half-goblin/half-elf prince who is living in exile imposed by his father, the emperor. An airship carrying his dad and three older brothers goes down, killing all of them, and suddenly making Maia the man in charge. He is retrieved from exile, forced into a court with no training that he knows nothing about, and is expected to rule a land that is anything but calm. Amidst all the swirling court intrigue, Maia also learns that the accident that killed his father and brothers was no accident, and launches a murder investigation to discover the source of the treachery.
Other than these basics, which can almost completely be found on the back of the book, The Goblin Emperor follows a fairly predictable plotline. Each day Maia wakes up, is confronted with some new political problem, and must bumble his way through it. The book is court politics at its finest, and if you are into aristocrats having heated debates while groping for power, this book does an incredible job of distilling that feeling into its purest form. On top of this, the characters are mostly delightful – Maia, in particular, is both adorable and lovable. He is a kind and loving soul and a large part of the book surrounds his tendency to break with imperial tradition in favor of showing empathy and sympathy. This leads to a number of truly heartwarming moments as Maia ambles through the book like a giant regal teddy bear. The supporting characters are all well-developed, and I got a very good sense of the court and its history through the careful worldbuilding that Addison weaves into her story. Addison’s prose is also above average, and I found myself reaching for a dictionary to look up new words (that were used to excellent effect) on more than one occasion. However, while I really enjoyed all these positive aspects of the book, there were also a handful of negative ones that severely weighed the reading experience down.
For example, while the setup and execution of the political intrigue in the book were fantastic – the follow through often left a lot to be desired. By this, I mean that a lot of the machinations of the story often felt like they had very little bite. To give a better illustration of this, there are multiple attempts on Maia’s life throughout the course of the novel. These moments are thrilling when they are happening but in the aftermath, Maia still clings to his aforementioned kindness and empathy by suggesting that a timeout will hopefully be enough to prevent future regicide attempts. His staff, as usual, convince him that this is not a possibility but by this point, I was starting to worry that Maia was not showing a lot of character growth and that the book wasn’t taking me seriously. While I understand that a major theme in the book is Maia’s uncompromising empathy, Addison did not do a strong enough job showing how Maia works through complicated situations to find a empathetic solution, which painted Maia as childish and naive. On a similar vein, Maia did not feel like he had enough agency in the story in general. Almost half of the book is him reacting to the actions of other characters or telling his staff to accomplish the results he desires without putting in any of the work. While I like Maia a lot for his warm heart, he did not come across as a particularly strong character – even by the end of the book.
The book as a whole also felt a little rushed and shallow at times. A major theme of the story is bridge building, both literally and metaphorically. Maia’s goal from the start of the book is to make friends, build a family, and bridge a river to connect two dissonant factions of his empire. The novel does well laying the foundation of these goals – showing a very clear “before” picture of the uphill battle Maia must make. By the time the book is finished, we have just seen a number of these bridges tentatively built, which is great, but we get absolutely no time to enjoy seeing the friendships that Maia establishes. The book ends with the characters saying “sure, we can be friends,” which is all well and good but I wanted to revel in seeing these characters’ friendships in action.
In addition, while the world building as a whole was very good, it was also weirdly patchy in certain areas of the novel. One example of this was in the implied racial tension. I think it is safe to assume that if you tell an average fantasy reader that you are reading about a half-goblin in an elvish society, that the reader is going to expect some racial tension. While there is a tiny amount, it was not present in nearly the same amount I was expecting. Addison only partially explains the racial politics between the two groups, but I think I am inferring correctly that elves see goblins more as distant strange relatives as opposed to a race of inferior useless sub people (which is what I expected). The names of the characters in the book are also needlessly confusing. God help anyone who tries to read this book on an e-reader because I essentially had to flip to the name appendix at the back every other page. Even then, I still had a very hard time keeping a number of characters straight.
Finally, the descriptions in the book could sometimes feel like they were glossed over. I think the best example of this was when Maia receives an incredible “emperor clock” from the clockmakers guild for his birthday. Or at least I was told it was incredible, I don’t know myself as I have no idea what it looks like. After being told by four separate characters how incredible it was, Maia finally gets to see it and just says “They were right, it was both incredible and surprising”. That’s it. Moments like these really broke my immersion in the world, which is a shame because Addison’s creation seemed like something in which I could lose myself.
Overall, I don’t want you to think The Goblin Emperor is a bad book. Addison has an eye for political intrigue and does an fantastic job distilling it down to a single engrossing book. There was the potential for this to be one of my all-time favorite novels, but it missed the mark due to the list of grievances I outlined above. Overall, The Quill to Live definitely recommends The Goblin Emperor, I just also suggest that you temper your expectations somewhat.
Rating: The Goblin Emperor – 7.0/10