The Goblin Emperor is a fantasy novel worth reading, though it's hard to describe. It's a story of court intrigue, in a steampunk world inhabited solely by elves and goblins. But they're not Tolkien's elves or goblins, they're not Martin's courts, and the steampunk does not involve a single pair of goggles.
Sarah Monette, writing in a lighter tone as Katherine Addison, has instead created a remarkably hopeful story of a single decent person doing his best in a difficult situation. That the situation doesn't involve saving the world or fighting off dragons or really doing anything — but still manages to be remarkably compelling and fascinating — is a testament to just how important good writing and deep character work are to stories.
Maia is the fourth and despised son of Emperor Varenechibel IV. When his father and brothers die in an airship accident, he is elevated to a position he neither expected nor is prepared for. Since his mother dies, he has been living in almost total isolation with his abusive cousin, who has also been banished from the Untheileneise Court. Maia's sudden elevation is even more complicated by the fact that he's half-goblin. Racism is rampant between the white elves and the black goblins, and though no one questions Maia's legitimacy on the basis of his race, his gray skin (black and white are much more literal terms in this world) does not endear him to the court.
But while Maia's deceased father hated him, he is one of the most loveable characters I've encountered in a long while. He has no interest in becoming Emperor, but he knows enough family history to realize that his young nephew would be little more than a puppet for a regent, and that the boy would likely end up dead. That and the risk of civil war push Maia to accept the throne, and the changes and responsibilities that come with it.
As the story winds through the tricky corridors of loyalty and politics, the reader begins to feel deeply for the young Emperor. His extreme social awkwardness, and the way he's internalized his abuser's insults and racism, are heartbreaking. But his unending desire to be good — to be better than those who treated him badly, to treat everyone with respect and whatever the elvish equivalent of humanity is, to be just and fair, to find friends and family — is marvelous.
Some readers may feel, as I did initially, that Addison's Ethuverazhin is unnecessarily dense, with far too many unpronounceable letter combinations. Not to mention her adding some regular old English archaisms like "an" for "if" and the formal plural. But while I still don't get why secretary is in English and valet gets turned into "edocharei," Addison has a knack for handling imaginary languages and inflectional suffixes. Ethuverazhin feels organic. Without using the language guide provided at the end of the book (I didn't know it was there), it's easy enough to piece together the meaning of titles and other commonly used words.
Ethuverazhin is also a continual reminder that this is an entirely fictitious world. Addison has so clearly spent a great deal of time fleshing out the complex inter-governmental organizations and relationships that it's tempting to read it as history. All of which might be dry, except for Maia at the center trying desperately to gain a basic understanding of the world he finds himself in. Having Maia's survival – political, social and occasionally literal – depends on his understanding of the world around him, gives weight to descriptions of impenetrable politics.
Ethuverez is entering an industrial revolution, where even the most powerful people are unable to prevent change, and readers can see the deeply destabilizing forces of democracy beginning to appear. The bind Addison puts readers in (obviously democracy is a better system than one where Varenechibel IV got to be in charge, versus just how much we like Maia as Emperor Edrehasivar VII) is sly, though short-lived. All of this adds to the spectacular complexity of the world.
As the story follows Maia's journey into self-assurance, this complexity often takes the place of a plot. Which, honestly, is not much of a loss. Maia doesn't need to be rushing to save the world from some apocalyptic prophecy or impossible-to-vanquish enemy. He's got enough problems with elves trying to depose him, not to mention various saboteurs and assassins. Even with a few life or death situations, the book mostly eschews plot-heavy histrionics in favor of warmth, psychological depth, and hope.
While I'd be glad to spend more time with Maia's ad-hoc family (including a princess who claims some serious fighting skills, whom we don't learn nearly enough about), Addison has said that this is a stand-alone novel. But if we only get to spend a single book in Ethuverez, I'd much rather it was with Maia than anyone else.