I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
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.
This is a charming tale of an unprepared young man, launched into a world that would be daunting even if he had been trained for it. Exiled by his father, abused by his guardian, disregarded and despised by everyone but his mother, Maia must find his way in a court that is complicated, unforgiving, and hostile.
I appreciated some of the real world concerns that found their way into this work of fantasy: the issue of skin colour, the status of women, the ways that people treat one another as “lesser than.” I also enjoyed the steampunk details included in the book.
Although there is violence—it begins with the airship explosion that kills the Emperor and the three sons ahead of Maia for the throne after all—this is not a novel about war, battle or force. This is a tale about kindness conquering all and about how much it matters who the man or woman at the top of the hierarchy is. Years ago, I was involved in a large organization as a volunteer when said organization hired a man of dubious reputation as CEO. Rumour had it that he had quit the last executive position before sexual harassment charges could catch up with him. Soon, all the women in our organization were on high alert and knew to never be alone with this creep. Eventually even the men on staff figured things out and finally Mr. Creepy CEO was turfed, but the organization continues to suffer from the years he spent at the helm. One of my male friends told me that he had always considered that it really didn’t matter who was at the top of the heap, that he just ignored that detail and did his job—until this situation, when he realized that company culture really does emanate downwards from the person in charge.
Having said all of that, Maia demonstrates that the Golden Rule is an excellent way to run one’s life or one’s kingdom—do unto others as you would have them do unto you. He doesn’t win every encounter by practicing this philosophy, but by unflinchingly attempting to be fair, to really listen to people and to care, he shows the qualities of a real leader.
Two criticisms, both to do with names: one, Maia to me sounds like a female name and it bugged me attached to a male character. Two, there were too many very complicated names. If the names had dissimilar or if there had been fewer characters, I might have had a hope of keeping them straight. As it was, when one turned out to be important, I had to backtrack a bit and figure out exactly who they were. Otherwise, I just treated them as background wallpaper and didn’t try to distinguish one from another—and this despite the fact that I am usually good with names and that fictional names actually matter a great deal to me.
Despite the naming issues, I enjoyed this book very much and in fact stayed up much too late one evening to finish it. I am still trying to catch up on sleep, but The Goblin Emperor was worth it.