“The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison is an engaging classic fantasy novel complete with elves, goblins, and dragon references, as well as a few minor steampunk elements thrown in for spice (primarily the inclusion of airships). Although Addison creates a rich and complex world, the setting in The Goblin Emperor is secondary to what is essentially a character study of how a tragic and lonely childhood prepared a young man to be an enlightened emperor in a way that a happy childhood never could have.
The protagonist Maia is the son of a failed marriage between a goblin princess and an elf emperor. After the Elf Emperor divorces Maia’s mother, both she and Maia are exiled from court. Maia’s mother dies when he is eight. After that, he is left in the care of Setheris, his bitter and cruel cousin who has also been exiled from court. By the time Maia unexpectedly inherits the throne as a teenager, he has spent years being bullied and abused.
Maia begins his rule surrounded by enemies and overwhelmed by responsibilities he never expected to have. At times his life feels like an endless slog through confusing meetings and formal audiences. Every day ends with Maia collapsing into a restless sleep. Every morning it begins all over again.
For this reason, at first glance The Goblin Emperor might appear to be a book about a young man overwhelmed by the forces of politics, greed, xenophobia, and power. If that is the narrative you follow, you may find this novel curiously devoid of action and excitement.
However if you look a little deeper, this is a story that provides the opportunity for contemplation and profound insights. For example, because his cousin Setheris treated him so disrespectfully for his mixed goblin-elf ancestry, Maia has exceptional empathy for others who are abused or disregarded for who they are, women in particular. In addition, because Maia has spent ten years trying to survive under the care of an alcoholic who hates him, he has an exceptionally good ability to read the intentions and motivations of other people, especially those who are his enemies.
In the book The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker tells a story of one brother asking another, “Why did you grow up to be a drunk?” The answer is “Because Dad was a drunk.” The second brother asks, “Why didn’t you grow up to be a drunk?” The answer is “Because Dad was a drunk.” The difference between the fate of the brothers de Becker writes, is whether or not at some critical point in their formation they received some recognition, from someone in their life, of their worth and value as a human being that allowed them to imagine a better future for themselves.
That person for Maia was his mother. As much as his character was shaped by abandonment and abuse, it was also shaped by her love and the loss of all of the love in his life when she died. If the cruelty of Setheris taught him how to survive in a world that was against him, the love of his mother taught him compassion, kindness, and spirituality. Because of his mother, Maia was the sort of emperor who attended the funerals of ordinary people, and learned the names of servants, no matter how humble. This was highly unusual behavior for an aristocrat in his world, and a quality that earned him the affection of many in a short amount of time.
The Goblin Emperor will leave you with a profound sense that no matter how wounded we are, there is always hope, and no matter how lonely we may feel, love will never abandon us to the dark.