The Goblin Emperor is a 2014 fantasy novel by Sarah Monette writing under the name of Katherine Addison. We find ourselves in an early industrial society of goblins and elves. The emperor and most of his immediate family have been killed in an airship crash. Destiny travels a long way down the line of succession, arriving at the door of young Maia. This unfavoured son has been living in an internal exile with a cruel guardian, after the former emperor cast his mother aside in favour of a new wife.
While the story’s setting is firmly in the fantasy realm, there are many parallels with the real world. Historically, I was reminded of the White Ship disaster of 1120 when a voyage across the Channel went horribly wrong, wiping out most of England’s royal family. Henry I was not aboard the doomed vessel, but the heir and most of his royal siblings all drowned. Mathilda, one the King’s daughters, was left to inherit the throne. Henry tried to get Mathilda recognised as heir, but the nobles weren’t having any of it. England had never had a queen and was not ready to accept one. A period known as the Anarchy followed.
The scenario in The Goblin Emperor is similar, but more positive. Maia, of mixed goblin and elf parentage, is young, inexperienced and lacks training, which all puts him in a rather Mathilda-like position. Inevitably there is a threat of anarchy, which does come close. But as I say, Maia’s story is generally a positive one. Much reading pleasure is derived watching the young man growing into his role, under the guidance and protection of advisors and bodyguards. Maia is no revolutionary, but in just being who he is, a decent and friendly person who has seen the problems of ordinary life, there is real hope for positive change, despite aggressive attempts by the powers-that-be to maintain the status quo. This sense of potential is centred on a project to build a bridge across a large river dividing east from west. In scenes reminiscent of the controversies of Brexit, wealthy and powerful figures want to maintain their monopolies. It is the many ordinary merchants who stand to gain by bridging divides. And it is these people who are given renewed hope by their young emperor.
The Goblin Emperor is a warm story, with a highly sympathetic central character, which has much to say about politics and leadership generally. I admit I did find the names confusing – characters can be referred to by first or last names, or by their titles, all of which might involve many syllables, umlauts and accents. This did leave me feeling a bit lost on occasion. But then Tolstoy had a habit of doing a similar thing and it didn’t do him any harm.
A heartening read with interesting relevance to real events.