The Goblin Emperor begins where a number of fantasy and quest sagas end. After many years suffering the abuse of his disgraced cousin, eighteen-year old Maia is crowned Emperor of Elfland. He’s brought to the royal court, given valets, outfitted in beautiful rings and clothes, and, after a life of adversity, reigns over his people. But this is where Maia’s story begins and it’s not one about finding freedom and escape but accepting duty.
Katherine Addison’s hero is ill-prepared for his responsibilities. Beyond his embittered cousin, Setheris, Maia has met few other people in their remote, country home. He spends a great deal of time considering and decoding the reactions and interactions of nobles and servants around him. He’s also conscientious, apologetic, wary of conflict, and desperately confused. Pressed into the middle of a complicated government and its antiquated traditions, he learns the true terror of bureaucracy.
In many ways, Addison’s story should be about a character finding freedom. He’s half-goblin on his mother’s side in a deeply racist society that believes its goblin neighbors in foreign countries regularly dine on children. His culture also dislikes, unsurprisingly, the working class that toil in airship factories and women, who are largely defined by either their fathers or their marriages. He has been ushered into a court system stuck in the secondary world equivalent of the Middle Ages while the rest of the country has started to build airships and clockwork bridges. Because all the other suitable heirs have unfortunately (and, as the plot reveals, conveniently) died in a Hindenberg-like accident, Maia is the only one who can take on the mammoth task of ruling the empire while forcing progress on people who would like nothing less.
Which is all to say, Maia is stuck. And he has to make the best of it.
Fantasy is often lauded as “escapism” by wider audiences. Considering the darker plots of many stories in the genre, I’m not sure I fully understand that stereotype, but honestly, the act of escapism just fine with me. Escape is a wonderful thing to find in a story. It’s delightful when, in Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s 1982 film, The Dark Crystal, the elf-creature Jen triumphs in his adventure, unites the pieces of the crystal, and saves the world from darkness and the vulture-like Skeksis. Stories like this are fun and, when consumed in moderation, are a healthy break from reality. Like Maia, Jen also lives in a world of elf societies, but unlike him, Jen has little trouble accepting his responsibilities and his problems seem to melt away when he saves the world. Jen does the job set out for him, but much of it falls carefully into place. Even Jen’s girlfriend, Kira, is revived from apparent death.
The Goblin Emperor strays into life and death obstacles, but mainly, it’s about one act of small negotiation after another. Maia negotiates with government representatives and their constant scrutiny. He negotiates with his pessimistic half-sister, Vedero, when he tries to convince her he has no interest in forcing her into an arranged marriage. He negotiates with the woman party to his own arranged engagement. He negotiates with his valets, bodyguards, and secretary, all baffled by his need to offer compassion and apologies for wrongs to servants and people outside the court when few emperors in recent memory have bothered.
And Maia negotiates with himself, knowing from Setheris’ actions that it’s all-too easy to become corrupt in the name of immediate satisfaction.
Both The Dark Crystal and The Goblin Emperor are deliciously unique examples of secondary world fantasy. Neither has a human in sight. Complex elf cultures are touched on with interesting traditions, unique (and perhaps improbable) names, and people. While the former is about saving the world from the forces of darkness and the greed and evil it represents, the latter is about saving the world from itself and the greed and evil it’s all too capable of committing on its own.
Maia’s selflessness is contradictory, proving his humility by accepting the highest position in the land. Also, Maia does find freedom and autonomy of a sort in the narrative; even emperors are allowed reprieve. This, however, is only after he has taken on the duty to do right by those it would be so easy to forget.
This is one of many reasons the book has entranced me deeply. The main character is a hero because no one else wants to be. Maia sacrifices the potential pleasures of a corrupt life, or maybe even the distant glitter of an anonymous life away from the crown, for one of compromise, social change, and attempted assassinations. Maia is not a hero because some Mystic has informed him he needs to fulfill a prophecy but because he’s willing to be the one who rolls up his sleeves, put his priorities in order, and get the work done.