I'd heard about Katherine Addison's new book, The Goblin Emperor, and since it seemed like a story I might enjoy, I decided to give it a try. I'm happy I did, since it's one of the most refreshing and wonderful fantasy stories I've read in a while. Addison's main character, Maia, the half-goblin fourth son of an Elven emperor, is one of the most likable, sympathetic characters I've read in fantasy since Samwise Gamgee.
Unlike much of the fantasy released today, The Goblin Emperor has very little darkness or dramatic action. It's a novel about how Maia, a neglected, exhiled fourth son, becomes emperor after the murder of his father and brothers and learns to navigate the treacherous, complex intrigue of his court. Yet the book has a profound emotional resonance, considering it's the story of a young man thrust into a new world were he struggles to find friends and allies, while worrying that people's lives depend on his every decision. Maia grew up untrained in the skills he needs to rule, but he throws himself into learning everything about his court with enormous dedication. His compassion, sensitivity and willingness to defy traditions at first seem like terrible weaknesses in a place more used to the impassive, often cruel reign of his cold-hearted father. But as Maia grows into his role, his kind heart wins him the loyalty and love of his servants and some of his family. Although there's an intriguing mystery that unfolds as Maia searches for the people responsible for the airship crash that killed his family, the book on the whole is a domestic drama. Indeed, while the assassination and coup attempts against Maia give the book moments of intense drama, the true story feels more like a Bildungsroman (a coming of age story).
While I enjoy Game of Thrones and other dark fantasy, I'll admit it was a huge relief to read this somewhat light-hearted, optimistic book about courtly intrigue. It shows how much real drama and emotion can revolved around the fear of public embarrassment or the longing for acceptance and friendship. I nearly cried in the last few pages when Maia ultimately rejects cruel, if well-intentioned advice to avoid friendship. The book's warm, positive message was a healthy reminder that while cruelty exists, there are far more Maias out there than Ramsey Boltons. Indeed, in The Goblin Emperor, Addison shows how love and loyalty can ultimately defeat ambition and cruelty. I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in the lighter side of fantasy, especially intrigues.