THE GOBLIN EMPEROR, by Katherine Addison

This is a story told largely through facial expressions, most of which serve to offer finely-shaded gradients of embarrassment and surprise.

This is a story that is 100% court intrigue.

This is a story in which the main character (a half-goblin who unexpectedly becomes Emperor of the Elflands when everyone ahead of him in the succession dies at once) winces, blushes, and cringes his way through a baroque royal court with a thousand unwritten rules of etiquette.

This is a story in which nothing happens. (No, I jest. Two things happened over the course of 450+ pages, three if you include the incident that happens before page 1 which spurs the events of the book.)

You might conclude from these observations that I was dissatisfied, but nothing could be farther from the truth. I adored The Goblin Emperor. I could barely put it down, despite that it was a near endless series of awkward diplomatic encounters with almost no action to speak of. I finished the book several days ago and have been asking myself since then just why I enjoyed it so much.

For one thing, the main character, Maia, is wholly good. That is not to say he has no flaws – indeed, the whole book is about Maia overcoming a near crippling lack of confidence and an overabundance of fear that his own inadequacies will bring him to ruin. But from the very start I was able to cheer him on without reserve, and throughout the story I was eager to see exactly how he would eventually reach the far side of a veritable minefield of courtly danger. He is surrounded by a dizzying array of secondary characters, some allies, some obvious foes, and some whose disposition isn’t clear at first.

For another, while there is little conventional fantasy-book action, there are dozens upon dozens of small, interesting encounters. They come one right after the last – just as Maia is done with his governing council, he must meet with the son of his father’s third wife, and right after that his secretary wants to talk about possible marriages, and then… and then… and then… It never lets up for our poor protagonist.

It does become repetitive at times; Maia’s reaction to these encounters is largely the same for long sections of the book. His fear of making missteps can grow wearying. But the secondary characters are interesting in their own rights, each defined for the reader by how they interact with the new young emperor. And the world-building density is high, presented to the reader not as exposition, but as lessons learned right alongside Maia, who grew up in isolation and so has to learn nearly everything from the ground up.

The book is full of a dense and complex multisyllabic jargon. There are dozens of names of people, places, and institutions that are nearly impossible to keep track of, right from the very start. I’ve seen some people complain about it, but I theorize that the author did that very intentionally. I think she wants the reader to empathize with the protagonist in his utter bewilderment. By confusing me with such a panoply of hard-to-remember names, Addison gave me a direct sense of what Maia was experiencing. She didn’t merely tell me, or show me – she caused me to experience it for myself. Once I realized that, I didn’t mind so much. (She does provide a glossary at the back, which helps, though I found that about a quarter of the time I couldn’t find the reference I wanted.)

Do I recommend The Goblin Emperor? I would recommend that a prospective reader understand the nature of the book before reading it. Someone expecting sword fights and dragons and more typical fantasy escapades is sure to be disappointed. But if you want a well written, character-driven, thoughtful and gentle fantasy of courtly intrigue, with a constant undercurrent of political commentary, you won’t be disappointed.

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