The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an “accident,” he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.
Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.
Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend… and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne – or his life.
It had been a couple of years since I’d last read this book and as it’s one of my favorite comfort reads I thought I was due for a reread so checked it out from the library in audiobook format. Earlier this week when I mentioned I was rereading this book, Lynn from Lynn’s Books Blog asked me what it was about this one that made me love it so much, and at first I found it hard to articulate my response. As I was listening to the book, however, I started to have thoughts, so I decided that I’d write an in-depth review to explain some of the reasons this book is so very dear to me. This review is going to get personal in parts because I can’t talk about why I love this so much without deep diving. 🙂
I like to think of The Goblin Emperor as a light read, but it actually deals with quite a lot over the course of the book. Maybe its hopeful tone makes it feel like a lighter read in some ways, but there is so much happening in the novel. You have Maia, the main protagonist and brand new emperor, trying to navigate his way through court life–a life he wasn’t raised to and is unfamiliar with. You have a subplot about a bridge, the mystery of the crash that killed the previous emperor and most of his heirs, the search for an empress, how to handle all the various family members that he’s now responsible for. Maia is also left dealing with his past, a past that he was never allowed to confront before, his mother’s death and her people. There are also kidnappings and attempted assassinations! And diplomacy! And all kinds of politics! But even though there is a lot going on, a whirlwind it sometimes feels like, we’re always with Maia on this journey and I think that’s what makes it work so well for me because Maia is so very grounded.
One of the main reasons I love this book so much is because I really identify with Maia. But wait, you may be thinking, you’re not an emperor, Lisa! And of course you’d be correct. 🙂 But there are other things about Maia’s character which I totally am in sync with. Growing up with someone who is a miserable drunk and abusive, constantly whittling away at your self-esteem as a child and making you feel like you’re nothing–those are things I can relate to. And while my childhood was no where near as bleak as Maia’s, I get it. Once freed from his guardianship, Maia spends the rest of the book struggling with his confidence and how to relate to other people, yearning for love and friendship. Every time he’s rebuffed or rebuked or reminded that in his position he can’t have friends, my heart bleeds for him. Maia!!! ❤ ❤ ❤
But also, one of the things I noticed on this reread, is that Maia struggles with something else, and that’s trying not to turn into the same person as his abuser. Multiple times throughout the story he catches himself either just after or just before acting or reacting to others in anger. You can see how he doesn’t want to become that person because he knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end, but also it’s what he knows because it’s the way he grew up. This is something I struggle with myself. It sometimes feels like you have to work extra hard at being self-aware so you don’t fall down that same path. It’s tough when you’re raised with that sort of behavior as your example. 😦 Maia, and his relationships with others, is the main focus of the book. Even though he sometimes struggles, at the end of the day he chooses kindness again and again. And, slowly, he begins to win over people. Because Maia is the heart of the story, that thread of hope runs throughout.
Another way this book is hopeful is it’s general progressiveness. Yes, this is still very much a patriarchal society. Men inherit and women are treated as property, their futures to be decided by their male relatives. However, there are those with the idea’s that women should be given more rights, the rights to decide their own lives. There is that hint, that with Maia, change is on the horizon. The same with technology. Some people in the kingdom are very set in their ways and don’t like change. When the idea for this bridge comes up, and it’s a new technological advance, many people are skeptical. Maia, once again, opens the way for progress in this quarter. There will never be progress if things are allowed to stagnate, and sometimes folks wanting to hold on to their power and positions don’t allow things to move forward. Therein lies the rub, the idea of progress and stagnation. Near the end of the book one of the villains of the story points out that their only goal was progress and with Maia’s reign, that progress is already beginning. But what caused Maia’s reign to begin was a horrific act of violence in which many lost their lives. These are some uncomfortable truths to reconcile–the idea that sometimes change comes in action to terror, and that hope can also result from such things in the end. This is some pretty deep stuff to ponder, again, for such a seemingly light hearted book.
I know one of the common struggles with the book is the language and the names. In this book the author uses a formal and informal version of speech, and this can feel off-putting to some readers (as English doesn’t really have a strict formal and informal the way some languages do). I really loved this, however, because it’s just one more way to demonstrate how far apart Maia is from others around him and how he can’t really form the type of relationships he yearns for with certain members of his household. Everything has to be formal, and there are only a few instances where he drops into the informal speech, and those parts are made all the more significant because of the language used. The other thing is the names. They are long and sound a lot alike. And some people go by several titles or names. This, I admit, can be a little confusing, but I believe if you don’t think about it too much then it all starts making sense after a while.
At its heart, The Goblin Emperor is a story about hope. It’s about how things that are crappy right now can always get better. And, although it may be a bit idealistic portraying kindness as the cure for many ills, I certainly would love to live in a world where everyone was a little kinder to one another (and maybe it would make the world better overall and prove the cynic in me wrong). 5/5 stars.