Maia, half-goblin fourth son of the elf emperor, was exiled along with his mother as a young child. Isolated from the emperor’s court and almost completely ignorant of its ways, purposefully ignored by his father, and raised by an emotionally and physically abusive relative, Maia is the last person anyone expects to inherit the throne. But when the emperor and his three older sons are killed in an airship crash (foul play is soon discovered), Maia is abruptly plucked from his life of seclusion and poverty and placed on the throne. In order to stay alive and avoid becoming a puppet for those who would manipulate him for their own ends, Maia must quickly learn how to trust—and how to be a ruler.
Much of how a reader receives this book will depend on how much they like complex, detailed world-building. There is an absolutely dizzying array of names and terms to pick up, although naming conventions and honorifics are pretty straightforward and help with keeping track. There is a place and person glossary and a brief guide to pronunciation at the back of the book, although it’s not required to get through the story and understand most of what’s going on. The extensive cast of characters, many with very similar sounding titles and names (family names and their variations are significant), add another dimension of confusion. All of this may put readers off, and understandably so, but it could also be seen as a clever way of getting the reader more effectively inside the head of the main character. Maia has to learn the workings, people, and politics of the court from scratch just as much as the reader does.
The Elflands are a fascinating place, and it’s obvious that Addison put a great deal of thought and care into constructing the setting for her story. Like any good book set in a complete fantasy world, the reader gets just enough detail to have context without feeling like they’re reading a geography and history textbook. (Although a companion lore book, preferably with lots of full-color illustrations and maps, would be great to see.) Political, religious, and social issues are all present, and despite not being (for the most part) central elements of the plot, it’s clear that their existence and how they would affect it were kept in mind all throughout the telling of the story. The complexities of issues like racism, class division, and restrictive gender roles are treated with depth, as much as the flow of the story allows, without beating the reader over the head with any particular message. Elements typically thought of as steampunk—airships, automatons, and a pneumatic message delivery system—are incorporated smoothly into an otherwise fairly standard high-fantasy world.
Despite being touted (more by reviewers than by the author or publisher) as a novel of court intrigue and suspense, readers coming in to the The Goblin Emperor with an expectation of or desire for an incredibly twisty or shocking plot may find it lacking. The fact that the airship was sabotaged is revealed conclusively, early on, and Maia—and therefore the reader—is cut almost completely out of the investigation, except in brief paragraph-length dumps of information. Even so, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out fairly early on who was behind it. Tethimar’s desperation to get his marriage into the royal family pushed through and his semi-hostile behavior toward Maia for most of the book are pretty obvious red flags. Generally, characters who end up being true antagonists reveal themselves as such from the beginning; most of the betrayals are not hard to anticipate. If the best part of this book was the intrigue, it wouldn’t be bad, but it wouldn’t be special, either.
The characters themselves are what take the story from good to great. Maia is a refreshing opposition to the trend of writing fantasy heroes as cynical, morally ambiguous anti-heroes—not a bad device in itself, but it’s been done so much (and often so thoughtlessly) that it’s getting old. He is sensitive without being overly dramatic or whiny, and optimistic without being unrealistic. He has morals, but does not come off as an impossibly pure or perfect person. He does his best to put on the impassive and distant mask of an emperor, but there are several times throughout the story where the stress of this catches up with him and he lashes out or overreacts. His development from an isolated, abused, and terrified outcast who has only taken the throne because he has no other choice, into an emperor who is determined not just to survive but to do what’s best for his people, is the true heart of the story. The supporting cast may feel like a blur in the background at first, especially in the first few chapters, but as both Maia and the reader get to know a number of them better this ceases to be an issue. Each named character is important to the story in some way, and feels like a person even if the reader only gets slightly acquainted with them. Hopefully there will be additional books set in this world that will explore some of them more thoroughly.
This book is highly recommended for fans of fantasy, steampunk, and slower-paced stories with heavy focus on characterization. Its target audience is not specified as young or new adult, but the age of the protagonist and the prominent themes of searching for acceptance and bearing up under unexpected responsibility are sure to make it a go-to recommendation for older teens.
– Reviewed by Rachel C.
None; nominated for the 2014 Nebula Award for Best Novel, the 2015 Locus Best Fantasy Novel, and the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel
Ambitious and meticulously executed worldbuilding brings an animated dazzle to this exceptional assemblage of character studies and complex encounters, while the expressive evocation of its youthful protagonist’s shyness and insecurity adds an affecting authenticity to the steampunk-infused fantasy setting. – Publishers Weekly
Addison patiently and tellingly paints in the backdrop, mingling steampunk elements and low-key magic with imperial intricacies. There are powerful character studies and a plot full of small but deadly traps among which the sweet-natured, perplexed Maia must navigate. The result is a spellbinding and genuinely affecting drama. – Kirkus Review
The author combines steampunk and fantasy (this is a world of elves and goblins and the like) to tell an utterly captivating story. Addison has built a completely believable world, with its own language, customs, and history… There are lots of unanswered questions here that will likely be addressed in a sequel. – Booklist
Despite the fantastic setting of the book, with elves, goblins, magic, and steampunk, many of the themes explored are easily relatable to the real world: racism, restrictive gender roles and norms, the effects of emotional and physical abuse, just to name a few. A book group or class could pick one or more of these topics and discuss their thoughts on how the issues were portrayed in the book and what message—if any—they believe the author was trying to communicate.
Book groups or classes with a focus on or interest in linguistics could discuss the languages Addison put together for the story. Which real world languages might have inspired them? Did the creation and use of invented languages in the story add to or detract from the reading experience? Fans of other fantasy series such as George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire have built on the words of invented languages in books and films to make them conversationally usable; would readers be interested in trying to do the same with the Ethuverazhin (elvish) and Barizhin (goblin) languages in this book?