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.
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3.5 stars for this predominantly heartwarming coming-of-age-in-politics piece, but fantastic 5-star narration by Kyle McCarley. Well-modulated British accent fit the characters nicely.
The story itself was not what I expected. I thought this would be a politically-focused fantasy, with magic and mystery abounding. Well, there was a wee pinch of magic, occurring only once or twice in the entire story. There was a mystery, but it stayed in the background for the most part.
This book could be any realistic narrative about day-to-day events as a young, untrained, unwanted boy (named Maia -- pronounced Maya -- age 18) takes over his suddenly dead father's throne as emperor of the elves. The light-skinned, white-haired elves. But Maia is only half-eleven, since his mother was a goblin. His skin and hair is dark. This brings to mind racial tensions, but honestly, the author didn't expound much on the potential for bias.
Instead, Addison chronicles the day to day transformation of Maia, from a frightened, under-confident, ignorant, and yet kind-hearted young emperor to a wise, compassionate, confident, beloved, and grace-fueled leader. The entire book chronicles the first season of his reign, from winter's first snowfall to the heavy spring rains.
Maia was ignored by his cruel father (the elven emperor) from birth. The emperor rejected Maia and his beloved goblin mother. At age 8, when his mother died, he was sent to live far away in the marshlands with only an abusive drunk and some servants. He received no proper education.
When he arrived at court to rule at age 18, he was regarded with suspicion and disdain. However, he consistently strove to repudiate his ego and repress his need for vengeance against those who ridiculed him, abused him, attempted to kill him. Instead, he focused on fulfilling his duty to the people. This included building bridges -- of one sort and another.
Quibbles: It grew a bit boring at times. The characters were difficult to remember. Too many similar sounding foreign names and words to keep track of, and the audio has no glossary, unlike the book. Also, I saw no reason for his abusive cousin Setheris to reasonably expect anything from him. I didn't like his constant need to apologize or beg pardon for no good reason. It grew tiresome and didn't befit an emperor -- as he was advised by his capable secretary, Scevat. (Plus, I don't like being around people who apologize continually. Makes me feel irritable.)
Maia was almost too good-kind. Not quite credible, nor fully likable. I'm not necessarily a huge fan of grimdark fantasy, but this went too far the other way. I liked Maia best when he showed his "human" side -- expressed interest in beautiful girls, delighted wonder at the model bridge the clockmaker built, grew irritated with having to wear so much jewelry, missed his mama, and told Severis off.
Probably won't read a sequel, if one is written, but maybe. Despite my quibbles, I found it oddly compelling. Would probably like it better after a second listen. Quite decent writing, easy to follow (except for the exhaustive and highly confusing invented language).
In most of the reviews I've read about Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor, folks wind up complaining about how difficult the names are. Amusingly, even the plot summary on Audible refuses to provide names. The truth is I would be hard-pressed to remember the names of the characters from this book, but I definitely remember the characters themselves, and their actions. And for me, that makes these characters and this book pretty memorable.
The Goblin Emperor is almost a throwback to classic fantasy, filled with court politics and conspiracies, adventure, alliances, friendship, and striving to make things better. It's one of the most warm and fun fantasies I've read in recent years. The current emperor and his heir dies in what appears to be an accident, and his only surviving successor is his bastard goblin, living in exile. That may sound a touch dark, but the story is practically the antithesis of grimdark -- a friend of mine joked that the nicest characters in A Game of Thrones did more horrible things that the most villainous characters in this book. That might be true, but it doesn't make the events of this book any less exciting or enjoyable. I love that at it's heart, it's an optimistic story about trying to make the world we live in a better one. About progress and change.
I'd never heard Kyle McCarley read before this book, but he was masterful here. He made those names roll off his tongues, and he made the characters feel like friends who will stay with you long after the story has ended.
The Goblin Emperor is that rare standalone epic fantasy novel -- full of sunshine, friendship, and optimism without ever feeling sappy or unrealistic. You'll never want to leave Maia's court.