When the Emperor of the Elflands and three of his sons are killed in an airship explosion, his fourth son, Maia, is unexpectedly elevated to the throne. The half-Goblin child from an unwanted political marriage, Maia was raised in exile by his cousin, with no knowledge of the court or politics. Bewildered by the rules and restrictions of his new life, resented for his race, his ignorance, and for simply being different from his father, Maia has to quickly learn how to be an emperor – and who he can trust.
It seems fitting that The Goblin Emperor made it onto the Hugo Award ballot alongside Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword. The novels have a lot in common, both dealing largely with politics and conspiracy focused within a single setting: the imperial palace and court; the space station in orbit around a backwater planet. Both feature a protagonist placed suddenly into a position of authority, and facing the resentment of the established powers.
But where Ancillary Sword‘s Breq is confident, perhaps arrogant, often flaunting her disregard for the status quo, The Goblin Emperor‘s Maia is an anxious and uncertain leader. He’s the victim of abuse – his cousin, Setheris, has spent a decade beating and belittling him while they lived together in exile. Even untouchable as Emperor, his cousin’s presence still terrifies him. And now he has been thrust into an environment where all around him are accustomed to power being used to abuse and control; he faces intimidation from subordinates and from members of his family. In the Untheileneise Court, his kindness and unwillingness to intimidate are interpreted as weakness.
The Elflands are also a conservative, extremely patriarchal society. Women, particularly noblewomen, are treated as property, to be married off for political or financial gain. One of the first things Maia must is asked to deal with is the marriage of his sister Vedero, which his father Varenechibel was in the process of negotiating. His sister does not want to marry, and Maia strongly dislikes the man to whom she was to be betrothed; knowing how his own mother suffered because of her marriage, he is unwilling to see the same thing happen to Vedero, even as she herself insists that he needs her marriage as Emperor. This conflict, between the expectations that others have of him, the requirements of his role, and his own beliefs, forms a large part of the novel. If Maia has a major flaw, it is in his unwillingness to make anyone unhappy – in trying to please everyone, he weakens his own position and turns his enemies further against him. It is a major point of growth for Maia when he realises it is often impossible to please everyone, and finds the confidence to simply take the action that seems right.
The Goblin Emperor is not a novel of high action. Even the mystery of who was responsible for the death of the old Emperor is a sub plot that mainly occurs elsewhere. This is, instead, a story of a single individual learning how to exist in a role he was never intended for, and learning to overcome an abusive past and find his confidence; of how kindness and compassion, applied well, have the potential to be just as effective as tactics of fear and control. It is also a story of change, where Maia, with all his difference from the old Emperors, represents the need for progress against the opposition of those who hold the status quo. Maia’s greatest achievement as Emperor is not a victory over an enemy, but the construction of a bridge that will bring trade and prosperity to the poorer half of his Empire.
There’s a whole lot more to it than just what I’ve been able to put down here, of course. Katherine Addison has crafted a very successful character piece, with plenty of conflict and intrigue to keep things interesting. I think I would be very interested in a sequel that shows the ultimate outcomes of Maia’s leadership. If you need to be reassured that this year’s Hugo ballot is not a total bust, you only have to read Ancillary Sword and The Goblin Emperor.