I was really excited when I started The Goblin Emperor and found that the titular character was named Maia. After all, we’ve got one of those!
We’ve never figured out what the non-Chihuahua part of our Maia is, so I’ve taken to calling her Goblin Dog. Close enough.
The Maia of The Goblin Emperor is not part Chihuahua, but is part Goblin in an empire ruled by Elves. He’s the fifth (I think) son of the emperor, the result of a dalliance with a Goblin princess (who dies while Maia’s young). An assassination via airship crash (the tech level is one of the neat touches of The Goblin Emperor) eliminates not only the emperor but all his other heirs. The empire, thus, is forced to turn its eyes to Maia, who’s been raised in internal exile without any hint that he might one day wield power.
That’s the setup of The Goblin Emperor, but it’s a setup that never really pays off. You see, it’s not quite accurate to just say that the book is Maia’s story – he’s the title character, after all. No, the book is completely Maia’s story because his is the only point of view in the book. This is a serious problem because while some interesting things happen around Maia as emperor and even to him, he, himself, isn’t all that interesting.
As a for instance, the airship bombing that sets off the plot is investigated throughout the book and is resolved in the end. Rather than being on the ground with the person doing the investigating (an interesting character in his own right), we get the answers in a letter he writes to Maia explaining his findings. In other words, we aren’t shown the investigation – and all the interesting world building info that comes with it – we’re told about it. For a book with an assassination, a coup attempt, and a second attempted at regicide, it’s surprising dull.
That’s because the book is mostly about Maia easing into his role as emperor. What sets Maia apart from the traditional fantasy emperor is that he’s fundamentally a good guy and is trying to do the right thing, often in the face of traditional resistance (one review called him “one of the most lovable characters we’ve met in ages”). He treats his servants well (actually caring about their well being is a radical act) and he seems particularly tuned in to the desire of women to be something other than marriage fodder and breeding stock.
Having said that, Maia’s good nature is never given any real scope. Only near the end of the book does he finally realize that, as the emperor, he can do just about anything he fucking wants. He never tries to jump start any societal reform or really change things, even in light of the anti-tradition philosophy that powered the assassination. So, yes, Maia is good, but not very ambitious. Not for nothing but the major project he oversees during the book is the plan to build a bridge – not actually build it, mind you, just approve of its building.
The general lack of “oomph” in the story is a shame, because the world of The Goblin Emperor is interesting. For one thing it lacks humans, which is not very common in fantasy (I should know). For another while there are magical things that happen (the investigator of the airship explosion talks to the dead, in some fashion or another), there’s no capital M “Magic” involved (if you know what I mean). Finally, the folkways of the court that Maia has to navigate are interesting in their own right, they just don’t support much of an actual story. The writing is very lovely in spots, too.
Wikipedia slots this book under the heading of “fantasy of manners,” which I’m lead to believe is kind of like a “comedy of manners” but not necessarily with the comedy. I can see that. Such things are good background details for me, but ultimately I need more for a completely satisfying read. If you’re less in need of a driving plot, though, you’ll probably enjoy The Goblin Emperor much more than I did.
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