Book Review: The Goblin Emperor

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison, tells the story of Maia, the youngest half-Goblin son of the Emperor, who has spent his entire childhood in exile. After the unexpected death of his father and his three older half-brothers, Maia is thrust into the confusing, overwhelming and sometimes dangerous life at court and crowned the new Emperor. Surrounded my courtiers, none of whom he feels he can trust, and the complex interwoven court dynamics, Maia must navigate his way through challenging waters to keep his throne. Added to the court intrigue is the overhanging suspense of knowing that his father and brothers’ deaths were no accident, and that in order to stay alive, he must figure out who assinated them. This review will relate to the audiobook version of this title.

I would categorize this as fantasy, appropriate for YA or adults, with a bit of sci-fi and a bit of steampunk thrown in. While definitely accessible for a YA audience, the story is complex and interesting enough to hold an adult reader’s attention.

I was disappointed there was not more emphasis placed on steampunkery. I think it would have been a great character/plot expansion tool and it was one of the reasons I chose to read the book. There are mentions of the ever-present dirigibles/airships that are found in most steampunk worlds, as well as some interesting tidbits on the pneumatic tubes for delivering letters, a telescoping spider-like bridge design, and a few other items, but nothing that really made me feel that these advances were integral to the society. Other reviewers have also mentioned that the names – both place names and character names – were confusing. I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment. I think it was probably even more confusing in the audio format since I didn’t have a way to reference a list of names as I was listening. Some of the names have more than one form as well; there are honorific titles used in the public rooms at court versus in private, versus the actual personal name of the character. I found myself having to pick up queues from the dialogue to figure out who the character was that Maia was speaking to, which was frustrating. This last detail is the primary reason I gave the book the rating I did.

On the positive side, this is a lush, richly built world. I found the character of Maia to be engaging, interesting and sympathetic. I was cheering for him by the end of the book, and enjoyed the descriptions of life at the court, and the trappings of emperor-hood. The narrator did an excellent job bringing all of the characters to life. The voice he used for Maia reflected perfectly that balance of a 19-year-old hanging somewhere between his childish thoughts and his new, more adult responsibilities and reflections. Each of the characters the Emperor interacts with most frequently had a distinct voice character which helped underscore the dialogue and descriptions of them. I immediately fell in love with Maia’s grandfather, who is King of the Goblins, when he comes to visit for Maia’s birthday and Winter Night, and the sparkling, glittering court celebrations capped off their encounter with a flourish.

The plot describing the investigation into the death of the previous Emperor and his heirs was a bit less interesting. Most of the action took place outside the palace, and was performed by other characters. I actually would have enjoyed hearing more about the back story and the adventures of the Witness for the Dead who is charged with figuring out who killed the Emperor. He is an intriguing character and one I’d like to know more about. The author now has a second book in this same world out and I’d definitely give that one a try in the future.

Overall, an enjoyable read with amazing world-building and a solid set of characters. My rating was 3-1/2 out of 5 stars, with points taken for the confusing and convoluted naming system. Thank you to NetGalley and MacMillan Books for this ARC, gifted in exchange for an honest review of this audiobook.

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