The Goblin Emperor is in many ways a very good book, although I don’t think it’s a great book in any way. It’s also very different than the usual speculative fiction fare.
Maia is a forgotten fourth son of the emperor banished to a far corner of the Empire when a courier arrives late at night with a message: Maia’s father and three brothers were all killed in an act of airship terrorism. And so Maia is thrust into the seat of power without the education, the experience, . . . or the breeding. Maia, you see, is a goblin, hence the title. Well, a half-goblin, courtesy of his mother the fourth empress. The old emperor, all of Maia’s brothers and the other empresses, and most of the subjects of the empire are elves. (The book doesn’t have much to say about the difference between elves and goblins beyond that goblins have darker skin. I can only imagine that the elves look like ugly Peter Jackson elves and the goblins like Nightcrawler.)
Maia is a great character and that is probably the great strength of the novel. He’s a character that jumps off the page and starts tugging on your heart strings. He is emotional. He is most of all endearingly earnest. He is a product of neglect and abuse and he wears it on his sleeve. It works when it comes from his internal monologue; it grates when it is expressed through Maia being overly apologetic.
It’s good that Maia is a strong character because this is Maia’s story and told entirely from his perspective. The minor characters unfortunately tend to be very much one note and don’t ever leap off the page. They are usually defined by a single characteristic we see repeatedly. The single biggest exception, I think, and not unrelatedly the most interesting character, is Maia’s arranged fiancée. Alas, we see too little of her.
I’ll get to the worldbuilding next, but The Goblin Emperor’s biggest weakness is a lack of conflict. Not just action, but conflict. And conflict is what drives all fiction, even if it is only “the human heart in conflict with itself.” Addison keeps the stakes too low. In The Wire Tommy Carcetti gets served a shit sandwich almost as soon as he takes office. Maia doesn’t, if only because nothing he does at first seems to be of much greater import (which is the great advantage of the monarchy really—symbolic leadership is one of the few things government can consistently do well). It robs the novel of tension, and Maia’s ostensible great triumph doesn’t overcome this. There are two action set pieces and they work well enough for what they are, which are very limited set pieces. The first cleverly ties into a single act from earlier in the book but that’s it. The second draws on events from earlier in the book in a more general way. Both have rather limited effect going forward. And the broader event that should drive much of the novel—building a bridge over a river bisecting the empire—doesn’t amount to much. It’s unfortunate. Bridges have a historical importance not reflected in fantasy. And something as prosaic as a bridge can drive narrative tension. For all Atlas Shrugged’s faults, the bridge sequence drives the first act. (There is also a rather groan-worthy metaphor there I will just ignore.)
I’ve seen The Goblin Emperor described as steampunk. The steampunk elements are, as usual for the subgenre, presented without explanation or much apparent thought (I like steampunk; the problem is I want to like it more than I do). We get a few airships and pneumatic tubes and the big bridge is a “clockwork” drawbridge but there’s not a whole lot else. There is a subtle tension between elves and goblins that Addison revisits often to good effect, but the elf and goblin moniker don’t amount to much more than labels. Far too much of the worldbuilding, especially that emphasized, is clunky or ineffective. The elaborate naming conventions are mystifying. The beginning uses bizarre archaisms (lots of thous and tharts) without explanation or seeming purpose. Thankfully they rarely resurface after.