The Goblin Emperor: Review

April 17, 2014 2014, 4 star books, adult crossover, fantasy, Kim, steampunk 42 ★★★★

The Goblin Emperor: ReviewThe Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
on April 1, 2014
Genres: adult, fantasy
Pages: 448
Format: eARC
AmazonIndieboundBarnes & NobleGoodreads
A vividly imagined fantasy of court intrigue and dark magics in a steampunk-inflected world, by a brilliant young talent.

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.

This exciting fantasy novel, set against the pageantry and color of a fascinating, unique world, is a memorable debut for a great new talent.

What an intriguing and refreshing surprise this book was! I was hoping I would find a story special and worthy enough to be reviewed on my birthday and I succeeded. Steampunk, feminist elves (and goblin) for the win!

This is not a fast paced, action adventure fantasy. There is no strong magical aspect. Rather, it is a fascinating character study, a meditation on subtle court politics and intrigue, and an examination of the relationships that make it all worthwhile. Much like the intricate clockwork in the story, the book itself is one of many details and pieces, some interconnected, some working separately but contributing their own importance, and all ticking steadily on to bring us one truly complex and captivating tale.

First off, I will say that there is some adjustment needed to the language used. At the back of the book is a guide to the pronunciations and naming conventions. I strongly recommend reading it before starting as it will remove a good deal of confusion. Additionally, the formal conventions of the Elvish court require use of plural at all times. Even when speaking of oneself, “we” is used instead of “I.”  This actually serves a purpose which I will get to in due time!

The names and titles are unique and take some getting used to. But honestly, these are just signs of how much thought and care the author put into creating this world. I really wouldn’t let it discourage you. It is an eminently readable novel. At some point I forgot that I ever even found the language and naming conventions initially confusing and proceeded to rip through the pages.

Maia is a worthy hero and a refreshing change from the anti-heroes or otherwise gray characters so often featured in the genre. Reviled and mistrusted by so many because of his goblin heritage, he is utterly at a loss when suddenly thrown into the viper’s pit of a royal court. Compassionate, kind, and understanding, this is one of the few times where an honestly nice character works for me. Often these types can seem too good to be true, but Maia is always genuine. Really, it’s hard to not like him. It is just downright comforting to spend so much time in the head of someone so earnest and who tries so hard to do what is right. To watch his character develop over the course of the story is a true pleasure.

Maia, startled, realized that not only did he have no obligation to let Chavar scold him like this, but he actually had an obligation to stop him, for the sake of Csevet and the other secretaries and every other member of his government who would never dream of berating the emperor in public. They have the right not to be ruled by a coward, he thought…

The true strength of the novel lies in the development of relationships between Maia and his allies. The side characters are fully realized and often delights unto themselves. The author has a gift for characterization and creating empathy in the reader. She deftly weaves Maia’s ignorance of convention and his good heart to develop his relationship with his guards, often adding a quirk of humor:

Beshelar and Cala took position, one at either side of the throne. He tilted his head back to ask Cala, “May you not sit?”

There was a strangled noise from Beshelar’s direction. Cala said, “Thank you, Serenity, but no. We are well.”

“What if you wished to dance?”

“Serenity, please,” Beshelar hissed. 

And here’s the purpose the constant use of the formal plural serves (I told you I would get there!): when the informal singular is slipped into, it is a sign of high emotion and sincerity. Addison uses this to great effect evoking a well of feelings between characters.

Here is also one of those rare books where there is no real romantic plot line to speak of and yet I still really enjoyed it. As befits the Elven emperor, Maia is quickly betrothed but it is a political decision and purely business. Yet there is a slow friendship and the promise, perhaps, of something more in the future. The novel is forever threading hope through the narrative.

The world building is incredible, detailed and complex. Much care is taken to explain the intricacies of the Elven court but it is never boring. The reading experience was like settling into a cloud of sumptuous details. I couldn’t get enough. The plotting is languorous but never plodding. Nefarious political plots take time to brew, you know.

Intriguingly, there is a strong undercurrent of social justice and feminism. The fate of Maia’s mother and the plight of his half sisters does not go unnoticed by him. There are many three dimensional female characters and they speak their struggles themselves. They want to be free of the Elvish confines that relegate them to child bearers and little more. When one woman expresses her desire to be educated Maia reflects, “We were not considered worth educating, either.” This is a story rich with empathy.

This is a standalone but I would jump at the chance to return to the world and these characters. Or maybe even a companion novel featuring Maia’s lesbian pirate goblin aunt? That’d be great!

Suffused with hope, humor, and a great heaping helping of heart, The Goblin Emperor is political fantasy at its brightest.

An advance copy was provided by Tor Books in exchange for this review.

kim teal







42 Responses to “The Goblin Emperor: Review”

  1. J. Oh

    It’s been a while since I’ve read fantasy marketed for adults, mostly because I’m so squeamish. But your review makes me think I would like this a lot. I have nothing against action/adventure, but I do love me a good character study. :)

  2. Katie @ Spirit of Children's Literature

    I’m so excited about reading and reviewing this book. I am a big fan of fantasy and who can resist feminist elves! I am definitely excited about this one, and am actually getting it right before a long car ride down to Southern California. :D

  3. Jenny @ Reading the End

    The Goblin Emperor is getting so much love from so many different people that it’s making me reconsider my stance on Sarah Monette. I read one of her books long long ago as a baby blogger and hated it SO MUCH that I’ve never even thought about revisiting her. But I’ll have to try The Goblin Emperor. I cannot resist so many recommendations.
    Jenny @ Reading the End recently posted…Review: The Lucy Variations, Sara Zarr

    • Kim

      Oh that makes me so happy to hear that you’ll give this a shot. I haven’t read anything else by this author (yet) so I was going into the experience with a blank slate. I can’t speak to how this compares to her other books but I can say that this one is one of the more uniquely styled and crafted (in a good way) books I’ve read. I hope you end up liking it!
      Kim recently posted…Classic YA Discussion: Anne of Green Gables + giveaway

  4. Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

    Wonderful review, Kim. I’m intrigued by what you say about the use of language, in particular. Everything I’ve read about this book so far has been positive, and I’m seriously considering moving it higher up on my TBR pile… but there are so many other high fantasy books I want to get to, also!
    Lark @ The Bookwyrm’s Hoard recently posted…When We Met, by Susan Mallery (early review)

    • Kim

      Oh, I know that struggle well. It’s so hard to manage that TBR pile. Honestly, I think this is a book best saved for when you’re just weary of grimdark fantasy and need to let some sunshine back into your reading experience. If you’re intrigued by the language usage just from what I’ve written here you will absolutely love this book. Save it for a rainy day of the soul. :)

    • Kim

      Oh goodness! Thank you so very much for bringing the artists to my attention! They certainly are very talented. I really love their art. Thank you again! And I do hope you will read and enjoy this story as much as I did. :)

    • Kim

      Honestly, it is much more about the characters and the relationships between them than the political intrigue. The political intrigue serves as a way to have the characters interact and not the other way around. The only obstacle is getting used to the names and titles. If I can do it I promise you anyone can. It’s an otherwise delightful story and should not be overlooked!

  5. Melliane

    I was really curious when I read the synopsis of the book and my friend Carien reviewed it on the blog and she just loved it! I’m glad it was the case for you as well. It sounds like a really interesting book.
    Melliane recently posted…Stacking the Shelves #90

    • Kim

      It is! It is very interesting and really not to be missed if you’re a fan of introspective, character focused fiction. I sure hope you’ll give it a shot. It really is refreshingly hopeful, and refreshing in light of what I’ve mostly read.

  6. Tabitha (@Pabkins)

    You make it sound so much more readable than I would have thought based on a few other people I know who’ve read it. It does sound marvelous and I like the idea of him being a character that is so earnest. That is indeed a change. I’ll definitely be reading it soon!
    Tabitha (@Pabkins) recently posted…Not Yet Read E-Reader Mega Giveaway!

    • Kim

      Oh, Tabitha I think you would really like this one! Please read it do! I swear, just familiarize yourself with the language conventions and then there’s really nothing about this that is unreadable. And it’s so worth it to get over that language barrier of sorts. In retrospect, I loved it. It was just part of the incredible detail that goes into the world building of this book. Ugh, I so hope there will be a sequel. You must let me know what you end up thinking!

      • Tabitha

        Definitely will do! I plan to read and review it hopefully next week. Going to have the author as a guest too. I’m excited! I will definitely peruse the glossary before hand!

        • Kim

          Awesome! I cannot wait to read both your review and the interview/guest post? :)

  7. Wendy Darling

    Although Kate liked this very much, she already told me she doesn’t think this is my thing, and I think she’s probably right about that. But man, oh man, does your review sorely tempt me! I’m not wild about high fantasy, but the way you’ve described the author’s use of language and her characters makes me very curious. If there’s very little romance but you still love it, I know that’s high praise indeed!

    • Kim

      Hmmm. I’d have to know more about what it is about high fantasy that specifically makes it not your thing. This is very much not the traditional “Magic! Sword fighting! Epics! Adventure!” fantasy. It’s quiet and reflective, concerned on small details, and in presenting deeply decent people. It has that steampunk flavor and a sort of pseudo-Victorian feel. It *is* a dense read, but I found I was still turning the pages swiftly. I think if there was ever going to be high fantasy that you *would* like, dear Wendy, it would be this.

      • Wendy Darling

        “Dense” scares me, but THIS:

        It’s quiet and reflective, concerned on small details, and in presenting deeply decent people. It has that steampunk flavor and a sort of pseudo-Victorian feel.

        especially the pseudo-Victorian part, is right up my alley! I may need to give it a try sometime…just to see.

    • Kim

      Yes! The language is the only barrier to getting into this book in the first place so if it sounds like something you will actually like than I’m certain you’ll love this one! It is super fascinating to learn the differences in the language, the tenses used, and when and with whom. It’s the sort of detail that I savor.

    • Kim

      Yessss. I’m so glad to be giving this book some attention. I love hearing that you hadn’t heard of it before but are interested now! It’s so gratifying. If you like steampunk and political fantasy you will *love* this!!

    • Kim

      You know, steampunk usually isn’t my thing either, but this book has made me think I should reconsider. Although honestly, the steampunk element really isn’t that strong. It’s High Fantasy, Low Steampunk. :)

    • Kim

      Ohhh yes! I’m so happy I have brought this to your attention! If it sounds like something you will like then you *will* like it. I eagerly look forward to finding out what you think!

    • Kim

      Yes, exactly! It’s so refreshing and lovely to spend time with a good and kind character for once. I normally enjoy my fair share of complicated, messy characters but this was practically a healing balm for the soul. Maybe I like those gray characters more than is good for me. But yes, it’s such an enjoyable story and not to be missed by those who love character studies and portrayals of strong friendships.

    • Kim

      I don’t think I’ve actually ever read a book with a goblin main character before. Well, this was certainly a strong start in that case!

  8. Pili

    Well, reading your review now I want to read this book! Steampunk & fantasy, with feminist undertones, full of amazing & rich world building and a standalone?? Gimme! is all that I can say!
    Adding it to the TBR list right now!
    Thanks for a great review, Kim!
    Pili recently posted…Introducing a new feature: Ink & Batter!

    • Kim

      Yay!! I am so glad you’ve added it to the TBR, Pili. You must let me know what you think if/when you end up reading!