The Goblin Emperor


  • Media: #Books #Books 2021
    • Author: Katherine Addison
    • Date: 2021-03-18
    • Tags: #read #fantasy
    • Rating: ★★★☆☆
    • Idea richness: ★★★☆☆
    • Links: Highlights, Goodreads


A banished, half-goblin prince becomes the new emperor of the elf lands after his father and half-brothers die in a suspicious airship crash. Woefully unprepared and underestimated, Maia surprises the court by not only becoming emperor but showing a kind hand and bridging divides in a highly regimental society where goblins and women are on the bottom rung. He must come to terms with assuming a role he never wanted, learn the ways of the court, survive coups, and grapple with his father's legacy.

If that sounds like a lot of political drama, it's not.


  • Forgiveness vs Vengeance
  • Justice vs Cruelty
  • Friendship
  • Bridging divides
  • Third culture / otherness


Given the synopsis, I made the mistake of assuming The Goblin Emperor was a political drama. It's not.

Part of the joy of political intrigue is seeing a plot take shape or sensing a gap where one may, even if you do not know all the details. To achieve that, you need to have a basic grasp on the system and how it might be levered or vulnerable. B-The Raven Tower did this well with a new fantasy governmental system. In The Goblin Emperor, everything likewise new but the emphasis is on the ornate manners and society to the point that it is impossible to guess any gaps or feel intrigue and delightful surprise. This suits Maia’s newness, but not so entertaining as a political drama.

Goblin Emperor is more of a slowburn, character-driven, fish out of water tale. A lot of stuff happens, but that doesn’t necessarily make for a plot. We get Maia's insecurities, court audiences, and a lot of flowery language. Details like a conspiracy to take out the emperor, moral dilemmas, and multiple coups end up being background players.

The Kez Take (feat. Spoilers)

I loved the goblin grandad, but I was secretly hoping he was behind the assassination of the king, whether out of misguided love for his daughter and grandson or purely political. This would bring some tension and actual political considerations as well as tie into the otherness/bridge building themes. As a Third culture kid, the way all Maia's 'otherness' was resolved felt a bit flat and smoothed out the struggles that can happen when both sides do not accept someone and the self-image issues (Maia's hatred of his looks) this and societal issues can cause.

Things I loved...

  • Maia is a good and thoughtful character and we stay laserfocused through his view.
  • The usage of stiff and archaic formal language for the court speak works surprisingly well. A simple way to achieve atmosphere and setting-specific manner of speech without inventing a whole new language system.
  • The glimpses of the wider setting (goblins and elves in a vaguely steam/clockpunk world with a palace the size of a city, witnesses who speak for the land and investigate crimes, etc) were compelling and original. A shame we hardly see them and the focus is on the less interesting (to me) quirks of the made up naming system and noble society.
  • Refreshing to see a story where the wronged outsider enters the court and doesn't take vengeance and maintains a relatively hopeful outlook.

Things I didn't...

  • I get nervous when a book starts with a glossary explaining made-up grammar and titles. Alas, by the end I was still no wiser on keeping track of most of the names or if it was worth the effort.
  • Lots of stuff happened but it didn't really feel like there was a plot. I wish it went all in on the character drama (drive in those tough dilemmas) or added a touch more on the actual plot side. There were so many interesting ingredients and they all were left to fall by the wayside.
  • The coups felt pointless and hamfisted. I thought it was supposed to be a kid's book and was skipping over complex political plots but then the next three chapters would be dedicated to formal court audiences.
  • While I appreciated the book not falling into becoming another morally grey political thriller with a revenge-starved anti-hero, I felt like Maia got the easy end of the stick. It deals with weighty themes (racial & familial tension, unwanted responsibility, abuse of multiple different types) but they all end up relatively easily resolved and/or brushed over. Meanwhile the court is basically okay with it all and (in some cases) aggrieved parties all inevitably come round and like Maia because he's nice, I guess?
  • Almost at the end, we find out the reasons for the conspiracy against the emperor and it more or less succeeded. Maia is appalled and this brings up multiple ethical questions and then... is kinda just dropped?


  • "...the deceptive clearheadedness of fatigue"
  • "One never relied on gossip, Setheris had said more than once, but it did not do to discount it, either."
  • "Yes, but one cannot prevent change simply by wishing it not to happen"
  • “We have thought you were too rule-abiding to be a good ruler — a paradox, you see — but perhaps we were wrong.”
  • “We said rule, not law,” Pashavar said tartly. “There is a difference, Serenity. An emperor who breaks laws is a mad dog and a danger, but an emperor who will never break a rule is nearly as bad, for he will never be able to recognize when a law must be changed.”
  • “We consider it cruel,” Maia said. “And we do not think that cruelty is ever just."
  • “Your mother bullied her into silence and she let herself be bullied.” “As it has ever been with our mother’s companions,” Idra said wearily. “Our father asked her once if she wouldn’t prefer an actual sheep, for at least she would get the benefit of the wool. Mother was not amused.”

Scrapbook Concepts

  • A palace as large as a city, housing ruler, staff, parliament, servants, etc. #locations
  • An emperor in the habit of giving political appointments to their friends' newborn children. #characters
  • the House of Blood #locations
  • The veiled emperor #characters #fragments
  • Witness for the Dead #factions #creatures
  • Witnesses who give voice to the voiceless. Speak for objects, rivers, land, and etc. who cannot speak for themselves in disputes and investigations. #factions
  • Sprawling, half-underground palace #locations
  • the Convent of the Lighthouse Keepers
  • a teahouse called the Stone Tree #locations
  • A storeroom like a dragon's hoard where all the gifts sent to the emperor go