The concept of nice guys finishing last is seen as weakness, perhaps indicating that someone does not have the drive to succeed, and only the ruthless and conniving can win. In novels, it is rare to find a character with noble intentions, and not have them overcome gallant feats, because there is no entertainment value in simply watching someone live their daily life and do what is right. In real life there are small challenges, with accordingly small victories or setbacks. Most entertainment, whether in film, television or books, emphasizes that this is not exciting. Sarah Monette’s The Goblin Emperor, written under the pen name of Katherine Addison, deftly and dazzlingly defies the norm and proves it wrong.
Maia Drazhar is the son of Varenechibel IV, the Emperor of Elves, and Chenelo, a Goblin Princess. This marriage was formed as part of a treaty that neither side valued. Maia was the result of a single sexual encounter, which occurred on his parents' wedding night. Complicating matters, the marriage took place shortly after the death of the Emperor’s much loved previous wife during childbirth. Both the Empress and child died. As a result, Chenelo was banished from court shortly after giving birth. And, when she died, Maia, who was only a child, was further removed from Varenechibel and the court, relegated to an impoverished outskirt of the Empire under the guardianship and tutelage of his disgraced cousin, Setheris, who was also banished and hates his charge. Over the years, Setheris has regularly abused Maia, both verbally and physically.
Maia is the fourth, last, least-loved, half-goblin son of the Emperor. He has never seen the throne and has no expectations to fill it. But that all changes when Varenechibel IV and all of his immediate heirs are killed when their airship crashes killing all on board. Maia, the only surviving son, is now Emperor. The Empire and court are thrown into chaos, and Maia is thrown into a world he not only knows nothing of, but must rule. To make matters worse, all evidence seems to indicate that the death of the Emperor, and his heirs, was not an accident. . .
In The Goblin Emperor, readers follow a most unlikely Emperor as he makes his way through the pitfalls of governmental and familial politics, plus the traditions of the royal court. Monette’s achievements with this novel are extraordinary. Not only does she make the daily routines and developments in a foreign court captivating (partially by making them reflect our own world), but she does so through the eyes of one of the nicest, most empathetic characters to be revealed in a number of years. Maia, who has suffered tremendously throughout his young life, is determined to be the best Emperor he can, and to learn from his own experiences at his father’s hands.
"In our innermost and secret heart, which you ask us to bare to you, we wish to banish them as we were banished, to a cold and lonely house, in the charge of a man who hated us. And we wish them trapped there as we were trapped.”
“You consider that unjust, Serenity?”
“We consider it cruel,” Maia said. “And we do not think that cruelty is ever just.”
Maia is a marvelous example of a rule who has empathy and balances it with his own goals and the strictures of his culture. His continued attempts to challenge and downplay the ceremonies and boundaries of what is acceptable behavior for the Emperor is a recurring theme in this novel. The Goblin Emperor is a gentle novel, about a gentle character finding his place in a world that often fails to provide him with the solace he needs. It is about the importance of living one's daily life as well as possible, and when you least expect it, those choices are often rewarded in unexpected ways. This is a compelling, relfective novel which highlights the need many of us feel to experience an entertainment where the world is not at risk and bombastic explosions are kept to a minimum.
The Goblin Emperor received the 2015 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel. It was nominated for the 2014 Nebula Award for Best Novel, the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel and the 2015 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.