The Goblin Emperor
Category: Best Novel
I learned from the Wikipedia entry that The Goblin Emperor is an example of a “fantasy of manners“, a subgenre I did not know existed but which appears to be well-established. That is actually a pretty great description of the book, in which Maia, the half-goblin son of the emperor of the Elflands, suddenly finds himself succeeding to the throne after his father and brothers are killed in an airship accident. (I at first imagined some gossamer-winged, magic-powered Final Fantasy style airship, but it’s a hydrogen zeppelin—yes, these are steampunk elves!) Maia is thus thrown into an intricate and treacherous court and has to find his way to becoming an effective ruler.
What makes the reader root for Maia is his empathy, apparently unusual among the elf ruling classes. Maia, as an outsider and minority himself, is from the beginning an ally of the less fortunate, something that shocks and alarms the courtiers and ministers he works with. His memories of and affection for his late goblin mother give him a special concern for the position of women in their society as well. This is definitely something that makes him enemies at court, and if this were Game of Thrones his lifespan would be limited as a result, but this book doesn’t take nearly such a grim view of things. This is a book about building bridges (literally and metaphorically), and when it makes an emotional connection it can get to even my cold robot heart. I actually got misty-eyed reading one scene while on the subway (for those who have read it, it was “Study the stars” that got me, and really won me over to Maia), and there were several other memorably moving scenes.
There’s something for my intellectual side too: the setting is well-realized, and there are interesting linguistic details such as a formal/informal distinction in both first- and second-person pronouns. This can be confusing, and I would definitely recommend reading the first appendix to the book early on, which explains the pronunciation, linguistic quirks, and slew of elvish honorifics. The second appendix, a guide to the many (and multisyllabic) names in the book, is also a great reference. (I missed the existence of both of these at first, and was extremely grateful when I eventually discovered them.)
I did feel that there were perhaps too few surprises in this novel of court intrigue. I clung to a theory that one of Maia’s most loyal aides was secretly evil through most of the book, despite it being completely baseless, because I felt it the villains that had been introduced were too obvious and there had to be a twist coming. (George R. R. Martin had the same complaint—but he would, wouldn’t he?) This is a minor quibble, though. Looking back, I like all of Maia’s allies too much to want any of them to turn on him. And by the end, Maia’s earned their loyalty.
I was sad to finish this book—I wanted to spend more time in its world, with its characters. There are a lot of intriguing details on the borders of the narrative: the goblin nation, the barbarians to the north, the other races and nations outside the Elflands. I’ve read that the author doesn’t plan a direct sequel, but I hope she writes more books in this setting. Perhaps The Goblin Empress, about Maia’s fiancee Csethiro? One can always hope!