The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an “accident,” he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.
Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.
Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend . . . and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne—or his life.
Any book Liz Bourke squeals about so completely as she did of The Goblin Emperor is pretty much guaranteed to be special, so when Sarah Monette (Katherine Addison is a nom de plume for the fantasy novellist, although we shall call her Addison for the rest of this review) put a copy up on Con Or Bust, I decided to make it mine. It arrived with the inscription “Elves, goblins, airships, philosophy and a giant steampunk bridge – enjoy!”; whilst the last word was certainly accurate, as a summing up of the novel, Monette really rather undersold it!
In a genre that has become a touch cliched – the coming of age story, and the disgrace to power story – Addison has introduced a true breath of fresh air. From an opening that drops us, without a lifebelt, straight into the story – with its names, new language, and fascinatingly reproduced C16th English (thee, thou, an and more are all used… accurately!) – through a story that refuses to pull its punches or treat either characters or readers as stupid to an ending that’s both as open and inevitable as it is perfect, the narrative voice that drives The Goblin Emperor is unique. Despite devoting no more space than many another novel to food, or clothes, or architecture, it feels like it devotes so much more for the compact fullness and richness of that devotion; the perfectly chosen specific detail, the precise nuances of language, the exact use of terms all adds up to such a richly, fully painted world that not only can one completely fall into it, but one can inhabit it fully. The style also emphasises the events of the novel; the stylisation of the language placing weight on the formality of the court, words and action of one piece in a way that is not only rare to see but incredibly striking.
It would be remiss to review only the style of the novel, however, when so much more is on offer, not least a fascinating world. Although we directly see little of it, that we’re following a new emperor, and the way Addison manages her plot, we discover and see a far greater world than that the story itself inhabits. We range over various provinces, different ways of life, and through different classes in a way that exposes the depth and complexity of the worldbuilding without ever throwing it in the reader’s face; I would suspect there’s hundreds of pages of world that weren’t directly relevant to the story but without which the whole edifice would not have been so beautifully complete. This is a world in the grip of its industrial revolution, before its trade unions – which exist on the periphery of the story – have really taken any influence; indeed in some respects it is mid-C19th Britain. At the same time, however, it has areas of significant diversion from that, such as the power of the monarch and the system of government; the world of The Goblin Emperor interlocks various elements to beautiful perfection.
The plot of the novel is inextricably linked both to the worldbuilding and to the families of the novel. We follow Maia, the fourth (and disfavoured) son of the previous emperor, from his discovery in exile of his ascension due to the deaths of those ahead of him in line to the crown to, around a quarter of a year later, his settling in to and inhabiting and making his own the role of emperor; his education about matters of court and country, his handling of personal and political grievances, his dealing with relationships (courtly, friendly and romantic) are all placed on the human (or rather half-elven half-goblin) scale and very understandable to the reader. It is through these that The Goblin Emperor establishes the character of Maia, and the rest of the cast, as much as through exposing their internal introspections; although occasionally events occur a little too conveniently, and Maia seems never to be ignorant at truly crucial moments, both characters and plot feel incredibly real, and powerfully involving; we care what happens to Maia, whether his half-sisters will ever like him, whether he will fit in at court, whether he can have friends or must be alone as emperor. Whilst these questions and feelings are the traditional meat and drink of both YA and coming of age stories, the force with which Addison asks them is truly glorious to behold.
In sum, an you want a novel of court intrigue, of human characters, of character growth, of emotion, of beautiful language, of powerful ideas and politics, of discussion and debate, of a beautiful, fully realised world, or if you just want a really great, intelligent book, The Goblin Emperor is one to seize on as fast as you can; whatever Addison/Monette produces next, I am singularly looking forward to it.