Maia woke with his cousin’s cold fingers digging into his shoulder.
“Cousin? What…” He sat up, rubbing at his eyes with one hand. “What time is it?”
“Get up!” Setheris snarled. “Hurry!”
Obediently, Maia crawled out of bed, clumsy and sleep-sodden. “What’s toward? Is there a fire?”
“Get thy clothes on.” Setheris shoved yesterday’s clothes at him. Maia dropped them, fumbling with the strings of his nightshirt, and Setheris hissed with exasperation as he bent to pick them up. “A messenger from the court. That’s what’s toward.”
But the message, when it comes, is beyond anything Maia or his guardian had thought possible. Maia has been brought up far from court, fifth in line to the throne and mostly forgotten. But when the steamship Wisdom of Choharo goes down with the Emperor and all Maia’s brothers on board, suddenly there is an emperor no one ever expected: a skinny, untrained, half-goblin, eighteen-year-old boy.
If you like political intrigue, this is the book for you. Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor shoves us headlong into Maia’s new world at the (shall I say Byzantine?) Untheileneise Court. Everything is new to him: he has no idea who to trust (or even the names of the courtiers), the basic outlines of what an emperor is expected to do, the ins and outs of imperial family dynamics, or even the sorts of clothes he will wear. The only gift his upbringing has given him is how to recognize cruelty, and that he wants to avoid it. As Maia learns what power he holds, he tries out small rebellions against “the way things have always been done,” and small revenges against those who have harmed him. But whoever sabotaged the Wisdom of Choharo is also after him, and he learns what danger he is in, and where he can begin to rely on real help.
In one way, this plot is genius, because Maia’s ignorance reflects our own. Addison’s world-building is wonderfully detailed, down to the language used, but I never found it overwhelming, because Maia as a point-of-view character didn’t know any more than I did. There was never a point where there was a sort of expository information-dump; he, and I, were learning about the court (or signet rings, or rites of the dead, or family rivalries, or whatever) as we went along, because that was part of what Maia was doing to understand the intrigue he needed to know to stay alive. It makes it a thoroughly enjoyable book to read, instead of a drudge; the world-building is meticulous, but the plot is the part you really remember.
The Goblin Emperor touches very lightly on race and gender. Goblins are, of course, a different species than the elves at the Untheileneise Court, and have a different kingdom. They have dark, often completely black skins, and a different facial structure from elves. Maia’s mother was a goblin, and Maia regularly hears slurs both about his mother and about himself. His willingness to talk to goblins, however, brings him answers that other emperors would be unlikely to get. The question of women comes up several times, as there is a quietly rebellious group of noblewomen who believe (shockingly enough) that women ought to be educated for something other than bearing children. One of these women turns out to be an unexpected ally for Maia, and he for her.
This book was so detailed in its world-building (there is even a “handbook for travelers” at the end, with a guide to pronunciation, names, and forms of address) that it made me think about fiction in general. In the realms of fantasy and science fiction, there are so many little worlds like this, scattered about, more or less fully-formed and then abandoned; used for a few books at most or sometimes just a short story. It is such intricate work to make one: everything from tectonic plates to footwear. I can see the temptation to use the world we have instead, where everything is already lying around, waiting to be used.