The Goblin Emperor is a fine secondary world fantasy by Sarah Monette writing as Katherine Addison. It tells the compelling story of a young boy Maia, cast-off half-breed son of a pureblooded elf emperor, who finds himself suddenly and unexpectedly forced onto the throne when his father and three brothers are all killed in an airship accident.
Maia’s life to this point had been a simple and rather miserable one. His father, the emperor, had no love for him or his mother, a goblin he wed for diplomatic reasons. When she died just before his eighth birthday, the emperor banished Maia to a remote manor to be raised by a man who hated him and treated him poorly.
With little education and no knowledge of a large politically complex court, Maia is faced with an almost insurmountably difficult task, which he attempts with a grace and kindness far beyond seems reasonable to expect from him. And this may, ultimately, be the one small flaw in this immensely likeable book. Maia is far from welcomed at court, and his little reason to like or love the people he finds there. He is a nineteen year old boy, used and abused by circumstance, and yet he is consistently resourceful, intelligent and kind to the people he encounters. He shrugs off casual racism, attacks entrenched sexism, and even when his life is threatened, he is forgiving and almost regretful of having to allow the law to run its course in dealing with such crimes. It’s a little hard not to question whether there might have been more anger, more lashing out from a young man.
The core question of the book, though, seems to be whether a genuinely good person can wield power without being corrupted or damaged by it. Is it possible for Maia to hold imperial power and not be forced to make difficult questions that have no good outcomes, just different ones? Maia doesn’t really have to face this in The Goblin Emperor. On several occasions he is faced with situations that have genuinely upsetting outcomes – he takes no pleasure in the honour suicide of a personal guard who betrayed him or in the execution of several traitors to the throne – but he is not really tested by the moral grey areas of a complex world.
That said, The Goblin Emperor is, as I said, immensely likeable. Maia is an engaging protagonist, the Elflands and the elf court that Addison creates are complex and interesting, the secondary characters are deftly drawn, and the story is one of those that seems to run before you until you’re faced with the sad realisation that those last few pages are appendices and not more story (one of the saddest realisations in all fantasy, surely!).
The Goblin Emperor is nominated for the Nebula and Hugo Awards, and is a worthy nominee for both. It will likely get my vote for the latter, though it is hard to decide between it and Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem. I also expect to see it on the World Fantasy and other ballots later this year. A strongly recommended book that has left me looking forward to Addison/Monette’s next novel with great anticipation.