Book Review: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
About the Book
Note: this review contains some spoilers.
Maia is the fourth son of Emperor Varenechibel IV of the Elflands and the product of a political marriage to a goblin woman that the emperor did not want. Hated by his father and far down the line of succession, Maia was banished to a remote country estate as a child and had his education entrusted to another man who hated him as much as his father did.
But now, his father and all three of his older brothers have suddenly died in an airship crash and Maia finds himself first in line for the throne. Untutored and nearly a complete unknown at the Untheileneise Court, Maia finds himself thrust into a world that he is completely unprepared for — and it is becoming increasingly apparent that the crash that put him on the throne was not an accident.
Can Maia, ignorant of politics and nearly friendless, learn his way around court? Things look uncertain, but he has a trait that will prove to be invaluable: an innate sense of decency and concern for others.
You know, this year’s been kind of a meh reading one for me so far. There have been books I’ve enjoyed, but none of them have really filled my heart with awe or happiness or wonder. So it was a delight when I picked up The Goblin Emperor. The first few chapters were a bit of a slog due to archaic language, but they were redeemed by a world with a palpable sense of history and characters who are multifaceted and relatable. Most importantly, at the book’s heart lies a solid core of humanism, warmth, and goodwill.
I am not lying when I say a sense of kindness and goodwill is infused throughout the book. Maia, aware of how poorly he was treated as a child, is determined not to treat anyone under his rule so carelessly. There are several points throughout where he, dealing with delicate political matters within the palace, asks the people involved if they are happy with their current situations and what they would prefer to have happen to them.
Considering he’s the emperor, he can choose whatever solution he likes — but he consistently refuses to wield such unilateral power if he can help it. Moreover, he’s on guard against instances of cruelty in his own speech and actions, and constantly vigilant against his own thoughts and feelings of spite, vindictiveness, and jealousy.
As The Goblin Emperor progresses, Maia’s kindness towards others is greeted with kindness in return. He learns to make friends. He learns about the politics, history, and culture of the court. He makes alliances. He forms diplomatic relations with his mother’s side of the family. And all throughout, a certain concept shows up again and again: the value of kindness and avoiding cruelty for cruelty’s sake.
I honestly can’t emphasize enough how much I love this book for its kindheartedness, its willingness to let its characters be warm and dignified people. Over the past few weeks, I’ve taken particular pleasure in re-reading the end of the book over and over, as Maia finds that although he’s now the Emperor, he’s not necessarily alone. I love this passage in particular, an exchange between Maia and two of his personal guards, Cala and Beleshar:
“Thank you,” Maia said. Two steps later, he realized that neither of them had said, It is not the nohecharei’s place to disapprove of the emperor, and that came together suddenly with his thoughts about alliances and relationships that were like friendship, and he turned suddenly and fiercely on both of them and said, “The Adremaza was wrong.”
“Serenity?” Beshelar said, even as Cala, alarmed, went back a pace.
“When he said you could not be our friend. For if he meant by that that we could not be fond of you, or you could not be fond of us, then he simply lied. It is nonsensical. It denies the truth, which is that we—” He broke off, dropped formality as deliberately as smashing a plate. “I am fond of both of you. If I were not, how could I possibly bear to spend half my life in your company? And surely the same must be true in reverse. At least, I hope it must.”
Cala and Beshelar were both going red, but they mumbled something that sounded like agreement.
Almost breathless with his own ferocity, Maia said, “It is true that we cannot be friends in the commonly understood sense, but I have never in all my life had such a friend, and I do not think I ever will. I am the emperor. I can’t. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have friends at all, just that they can’t be that sort of friend. I believe that the Adremaza meant his advice for the best, but he was cruelly wrong. I do not ask, or expect, you to be friends with me as you are friends with other mazei, or other soldiers in the Untheileneise Guard. But it … it’s silly to deny that we hold each other in affection.” He stopped, swallowed hard. “If, of course, you do.”
“Of course we do,” Beshelar said, using the plural rather than the formal.
“For my part,” Cala said, “I have never been able to stop thinking of you as—you are right, not as a friend, exactly, but … I would die for you, Serenity, and not only because I swore an oath.”
“As would I,” said Beshelar.
Maia blinked hard and said, “Then we will be a different sort of friends.”
Cala’s smile was beautiful, and although Beshelar didn’t smile, he saluted with élan.
And because of this, I’m happy to give it my vote for this year’s Hugo award for best novel. In a world where Sad and Rabid Puppies are A Thing That Exists, where the value of the voices of women, LGBTQ people, and people of colour are questioned, nothing would make me happier than to give science fiction and fantasy’s highest honour to The Goblin Emperor, a novel that makes a point of showing that kindness and respect for others is the best policy.
What Tea Suits This Book?
Of course, at Books and Tea, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend a tea to accompany The Goblin Emperor. Over the course of the book, it becomes a habit for Maia to drink chamomile tea in the morning immediately after waking up. An odd choice, considering chamomile is considered an evening tea to bring on sleep — but also somewhat fitting, since chamomile is soothing, and so is this book.
So: chamomile tea it is. Drink up, read on, and be comforted.