The door opened with savage abruptness, and Setheris stood in the opening, glaring. "Well? What chews on thy tail, boy?"
"Cousin," Maia said, almost whispering, "what must I do?"
"What must thou do?" Setheris snorted laughter. "Thou must be emperor, boy. Must rule all the Elflands and banish thy kindred as thou seest fit. Why com'st thou whining to me of what thou must do?"
"Because I don't know."
"Moon-witted hobgoblin," Setheris said, but it was contempt by reflex; his expression was abstracted. (p. 10, iPad iBooks e-edition)
The Goblin Emperor is the first fantasy novel published by Sarah Monette (The Doctrine of Labyrinths) under her Katherine Addison pseudonym. It is a departure of sorts from her previous fantasy series. Gone are sometimes-brutal world of Mélusine and the hurting, sometimes cruel Felix. In its place is a different world, one where there are only elves and goblins, two races divided by culture and outward appearance, symbols of other, more real, prejudices. It is a hodge-podge setting, mixing elements of steampunk-inspired machines and airships, Renaissance-era courts, and attire and food that are non-European-resembling.
Within this elaborate setting a simple little tale unfolds. Maia, the half-goblin fourth son of the late emperor, learns suddenly after eighteen years of exile, that he is to inherit the kingdom after his father and three half-brothers, all full elves, have died in a tragic airship accident. Cut off from the court and largely ignorant of the customs of the empire he has inherited, Maia finds him having to battle anti-goblin prejudice in order to establish his rule.
This is a rather basic tale, but one which Addison has decked out with some nice baubles. There are multiple social registers in the court and everyday speech of the empire and each of these is demonstrated at some length. The customs and oddities of court behavior are also explored in detail, providing a depth of setting to the story. For those who are fascinating with settings and imagined "worlds," The Goblin Emperor provides almost a surfeit of delights.
Yet despite the technical qualities on display, the narrative suffers due to its basic theme, that of a good, formerly-lowly person rising through fortune to become a wise ruler. It is a familiar tale and while Addison does try to enrich it with explorations of how racism and other socio-cultural prejudices can blind people to the good within others, the basic premise and most of its developments are so well-trodden that the tale feels emptier than it should, as though the characters were sleepwalking through a voyage already pre-ordained for them. For some readers, this sense of familiarity will be a bonus, adding to the delight that they might feel for the setting and its trappings, but for myself, it lessened my enjoyment so much that The Goblin Emperor merely was a mediocre story told well.