Among high fantasy tropes, the goblin is not a particularly prized character. What you’re thinking of when I say “goblin” is probably some combination of attributes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s grotesque orcs in Lord of the Rings, the bumbling, low-level scamps from D&D (or, more recently, World of Warcraft), and maybe the terrifying codpiece of David Bowie in Labyrinth (amongst other, even more ridiculous 80s movies). Even more sympathetic portrayals, such as the goblins of Harry Potter, generally portray goblins as mischievous and greedy. For the most part, goblins are evil, villainous monsters that are, nevertheless, little more than cannon fodder in larger conflicts.
Katherine Addison’s novel The Goblin Emperor challenges this starting with the title of the novel itself. We’re clearly going to delve into the world of goblins here. While I’m not going to claim anything near a comprehensive knowledge of high fantasy, I know enough to be intrigued by the concept, and the possibilities are endless. The novel doesn’t quite deliver on that axis of potential, but rather tries for a more subtle novel of characterization. There is, of course, nothing wrong with characterization, but when that’s all there is, I’m usually left unsatisfied. This novel makes overtures towards a more gripping story, but generally seems content to stick with its character sketch.
Our protagonist is a reasonably likable fellow, well-mannered, self-aware, and honorable, though in no way perfect. In fact, he’s alarmingly passive throughout most of the story, and as our sole viewpoint character, the reader is forced to confront his naivety and ignorance a little too often. I never stopped liking the guy or rooting for him, but did find myself frustrated by the frequent misunderstandings or whining about this or that court intrigue. But I get ahead of myself.
The novel starts of promisingly enough. Maia is the youngest son of the Emperor, but lives in exile because of his half-goblin heritage. The Elven Emperor married Maia’s Goblin mother out of political expedience rather than any real desire, so when she died, Maia was sent off to a distant castle under the “care” (i.e. abuse) of his cousin while the Emperor took a more desirable Elven bride. When events conspire to kill the Emperor and his three eldest sons in a freak airship “accident” (i.e. sabotage), Maia quickly learns that he has unexpectedly ascended to the throne by default. The race is on to get to the court and establish himself before the Chancellor and other sycophants jockey themselves into power.
After an immediate charge of energy from these events and the introduction to the world, the novel quickly bogs down into repetitive, tedious, and repetitive meditations on court intrigue and decorum. And honestly, “intrigue” is too exciting a word to use for these machinations. Most readers will pinpoint the troublemakers in an instant, and yet Addison drags out the inevitable coup attempt (spoiler, I guess, but have you ever read a story about a freshly minted Emperor that didn’t involve a coup or assassination attempt?) for nearly 2/3 of the novel, and not in a tension-building way either. When it happens, it is less thrilling than it is simply a relief to be reading something entertaining rather than how lightheaded Maia is at the thought of politics or how he grips his chair so hard out of nervousness that he bruises his hands (seriously, that last one happens multiple times). Also, I hope you like the word “Serenity” because that’s the honorific bestowed upon the Emperor and thus it appears approximately 2,000 times in the novel. The final third of the novel, at least, delivers on some of the potential suggested earlier in the piece, even if I don’t think it wholly compensates for the plodding nature of the story that preceded it…
Of course, part of the point is that the title of Emperor is not a particularly pleasant one. Much is made of Maia’s loneliness, and he is, indeed, in a very vulnerable and scary situation. Fourth in line for the throne, he was not prepared for any of this, he has come to the court lacking any real knowledge of politics or etiquette, and he has no friends, no one he can really trust. Even most of his servants, loyal to the previous Emperor, seem to only grudgingly tolerate him at first. I don’t generally like whiny characters, but it helps when they have something legitimate to whine about. There is something to be said for a story where the new Emperor learns to win over his detractors and learn how to rule, but as mentioned earlier, Maia seems entirely too passive to really accomplish that. Even his response to the coup attempt is a situation that he barely has any influence on (I was far more impressed by Maia’s cousin Idra during this event). He seems to win people over simply by existing, which is not particularly satisfying, especially when it takes so long to occur. Things are looking up a bit in the end, with Maia ham-fistedly dubbed the “bridge builder” because he actually did something decisive (though seriously, that’s a pretty clunky metaphor).
There is some exploration of race and class here, and Addison wisely shies away from histrionics on that front, revealing a less overt influence that is perhaps more insidious because of its subtlety. On the other hand, we learn very little about goblins or elves, so while it seems clear that Addison did a fair amount of worldbuilding to make this story work, much of it is not really on display. All of the characters essentially act like human beings, rather than different races. As a human being myself, that’s not the worst thing in the world, I guess, but one of the things I like about Fantasy and SF is trying to extrapolate human characteristics in different contexts. This book made me want to either read actual historical accounts of court intrigue, or better fictional versions (the ones that come immediately to mind are Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar as well as her Chalion books, and naturally, Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, all of which I enjoyed a great deal more than The Goblin Emperor).
I’m decidedly mixed on this book. I can appreciate much of what it accomplishes and it is certainly a well written piece of work. It’s got a surprisingly pleasant and empathetic protagonist and the final third has an actual plot (if a derivative one) that winds up hopeful in tone and even uplifting rather than the more typical grimmness. It’s the dreary, overlong slog in the middle that sunk me and I was never really able to recover. Of the 3 novels on the Hugo ballot that I’ve read, I’d put this at about on par with Ancillary Sword and far behind The Three Body Problem.