We at Wonderland are big fans of SF Signal. They've been a go-to site for all things SpecFic, "Skiffy" and other wise SF/Fantasy for years. They're knowledgeable and have a vast readership -- and for good reason. Their interviews, guest editorials, book reviews and more are great. Their Special Needs in Strange Worlds series, a column focused on celebrating disabilities in SFF, is pure gold. From those books recommended in the column, I have borrowed and purchased quite a few - including today's selection by Sarah Monette, writing for Tor as Katherine Addison. It, too, is pure gold, and I am quietly hopeful that she will write another in the same universe. (Quietly hopeful, because being loudly hopeful is generally considered Poor Manners.)
The novel's cover depicts perfectly that descriptive proverb from Henry IV, "Uneasy lies the head that bears the crown." This head bears a whole kingdom atop his head, and his wide-open eyes seem to be rolling in panic as the walls close in, funneling every problem onto his head. The sepia tones allow for the goblin-gray skin pigments to not seem too weird -- but the ears on the cover "model" and the airship hovering overhead give us an immediate perception of "not human" and "not here." With minimal effort, this Other realm is nicely conveyed.
Tor.com has released the first four chapters of the novel here for preread, but be warned: you'll want to read the whole of the thing, once you've begun, so make sure you have it on hand shortly after!
You'll be glad to know that much of Monette/Addison's short fiction is available online, and if you've never read A COMPANION TO WOLVES, do.
Concerning Character: The Archduke Maia Drazhar is the imposing name of the fourth son of the Elvish emperor, Varenchibel IV. A biracial half-goblin, Maia is cursed with a complexion that is a light gray, thus not of the pure white, austere beauty of the elves, nor the deepest, glossy Goblin black with orange eyes. Elvish features and Goblin coloring, Maia is generally called "moonwitted hobgoblin" instead of his name, and when his cousin, Setheris, who is also his pure-Elvish guardian, is drunk, he is also punched, knocked around, and abused. He's lived in exile all his life -- first, with his mother, until the age of eight, when she the Emperor's fourth and reviled wife, died. Maia wasn't even allowed to put on mourning clothes, but was bundled up, and sent even further away. He's never been to the Unntheleian Court, where the Emperors of Ethuveraz live in brilliant splendor. Maia's clothes are threadbare, there's rarely enough to eat, and what's there isn't his choice -- it's his guardian's. He hates, and in turn is hated in his tiny, oppressive household, made up of two exiled royals and two mostly bored servants. Maia lives a life of endurance. He is never expected to do or be anything, and he has just turned eighteen...
And his father, half brothers, and all his heirs but one have just died in an airship crash.
Suddenly rushed into the spotlight, Maia - that inbred cretin, that moon-witted hobgoblin - is the ruler of all Ethuveraz. He has a sister - whom he's never met. He has an heir, the fourteen year old son of his half brother - another person he's never met. The treaties, expectations, and rulership of a vast, immeasurable land is his, all his. Gods save the Emperor -- no, really. SOMEBODY needs to save him. It's not going to be Setheris, whose heavy hand and chronic fury Maia is only too glad to get away from. It's not going to be his Nohecharai - his bodyguards - one a cleric, and one a soldier. They've explained to him already: they are not his friends. It's not going to be the little girl his father left behind as a widow empress spoiled, scheming and beautiful -- it's not going to be the Lord Chancellor, whose loyalty to his father's memory in the past blinds him to Maia's reality in the present.
There's no one to hide behind. Maia - the Emperor of Ethuveraz - must save himself.
But, first, he needs to figure out who murdered his father and half-brothers. And who will next be coming for him...
Reader Gut Reaction: If you love a detailed mystery, we've got your mystery right here. There are surprises at every turn, and the good sort of crunchy tenacity that investigators have is imbued in most of Maia's dealings. He doesn't make huge mistakes which are obvious to the reader -- there are TONS of breaches of Emperor behavior - it really is hard to continue to speak in the royal "we" when "I" is who you are -- he fails constantly in matters of breeding and politese, which would have been drummed into him, had he grown up in the Emperor's court. However, in matters of character, Maia never fails, and this is what makes him a stand-up character, the type readers adore.
That Maia is "biracial" is not subtle; because of his ancestry, he is the butt of rumor and suspicion. The Barizhan, the Emperor said publicly, were inbred and mad - and so Maia is assumed to be. Their low-slung jaws, bristly black hair, orange-shading-to-red eyes and black skin make them vastly different and Other than the Elves. Maia is surrounded on all sides by pure-blooded elves with a pale and symmetrical beauty, long, fine bones, and white hair. At one point, Maia meets with a room full of goblins at the ambassador of Barizhan's home and the first shock of seeing so many like him makes him want to cry or faint -- the emotional burst of "finally, someone like me" is intense and relatable.
The novel opens in confusion. There is darkness - interrupted sleep. Names. Places. And none of it means anything to the reader. If you're the type of reader who wants to place everyone in their place - keep reading. Don't drop out because you're confused. The breakneck pace and the feeling of being dragged along through dark corridors increases - and echoes the main character's feelings. Give in to the bewilderment. Eventually, there is light, of a sort -- but it is a flickering flame. You hold your breath, hoping the flame will go brighter -- and then you'll realize: you're hooked.
THE GOBLIN EMPEROR has gigantic hooks, the reader is reeled in for a ride, caring deeply for the outcome of one disastrous, confused, woefully unprepared and repeatedly defeated character -- who has to rise to greatness, or be crushed. You will want him to succeed - desperately. The detail and scope of the worldbuilding in this novel is stunning - the imposing and suffocating palace, the internecine political rivalries, the glittering wardrobe, the battle between what is said and what is intended -- all of this cutthroat political maneuvering with an unguarded and virtually naked participant creates an intricate novel with the feel of a thriller with a soupçon of steampunk and fantasy for garnish. Though not marketed to young adults, this story gives a burst of new life to the "orphan prince" trope, and is a delightful crossover for older teens and adults. A sincerely satisfying novel, you really won't want to miss it.
I checked out this book at my local library. You can find THE GOBLIN EMPEROR by KATHERINE ADDISON online, or at an independent bookstore near you!