Because all of life is stories.
Like many of the books I’ve read over the last few months, I found this one when it showed up on my twitter feed one day and just refused to leave it. Katherine Addison’s debut novel The Goblin Emperor is the story of the youngest half-goblin son of the Emperor of the Elflands. Maia expected to live most, if not all, of his life in exile. But when his father and three older brothers are killed in an airship explosion, he finds himself heir to the throne, and reluctant Emperor.
Maia spends most of the novel trying to catch up on a lifetime’s worth of education in politics and court manner. Having spent most of his life in exile he was never expected to take up the crown, and thus never seen fit to educate by his father. Predictably, he is met with scorn from his senate and chancellors, pity and shame from his advisors and bodyguards, and outright hatred from those with eyes on a higher station. Maia finds himself out of his depth, friendless, and in need of a miracle.
The novel starts out a little slow if you aren’t a fan of straight up political intrigue. Especially since early on it seems that every move Maia makes is a wrong one, leaving him torn between despondency and anger. But by the middle stages of the book, when Maia begins to gain confidence both in himself and from those around him, it’s easy to fly through the pages, almost difficult not to. Maia and his supporting cast of characters are some of the deepest and most complex I’ve read. The interwoven motivations, grudges, and ideologies all create a fast moving story that deftly switches from debating the finer points of government subsidized infrastructure at one moment to assassination attempts and women’s schooling the next.
The steampunk society feels like a fully lived in thing, with things happening away from our main point of view, and not simply coming into play when it is convenient for the plot. Mail piles up whenever Maia and his retinue avoid it for different matters. Offscreen characters become impatient waiting for responses. Goblin delegations travel the country and agents of the empire uncover plots against the throne. The point is that like the gearworks of airships the empire moves and functions and lives beyond the auspices of court. It all feels real and deep and meaningful.
The characters really do bear mentioning again. Maia is sympathetic, kind, and someone to root for. It’s fairly obvious early on that previous regimes were not the best politicians of their time. Though they ran a stable empire, it is implied that many suffered under their reign. As Maia grows into his role and into himself it becomes evident that he could be someone to bring great change to the world. Between his burgeoning competence and his kind and gentle nature Maia grows into a character that the reader feels the need to protect and nurture. His Norhechere, Adochere, and other servants all bear their own responsibilities and motivations and character quirks that make them lovable and memorable. His extended family and the courtiers, despite having extremely similar names, all stand out as their own selves. And that makes the book a page turner more than the plot in this entry.
It’s not a typical plot driven fantasy. It’s a bit more literary, which is not inherently a better or worse thing, but it plays well when combined with the slow burn of political intrigue which pervades the novel on every level, much to Maia’s constant frustration. It’s slow to begin but before you know it the book is coming to a close, and you’re left longing with a sense that there should be more. Not to say the book feels incomplete, it ends on a satisfying note, and sadly is a standalone novel. But I think there will always be a place on my favorites shelf for the nervous young hobgoblin that was Maia Drazhar, that became the Emperor Edra Hasavar. This is the beginning of his story. I do hope there is more.