The protagonist of The Goblin Emperor is Maia, fourth son of the elfin emperor of Elfland. He and his goblin mother were cast off by his elfin father, but the sudden death of the emperor and his heirs has thrust Maia back into a court that was not expecting a half-goblin to rule over it. Maia, who has lived in uneducated exile, now has to learn what he should have been learning all along--court etiquette, clan alliances, court laws and politics, how to dance, and how to carry himself like a true emperor. The last of
these is the hardest. Maia is apologetic about his existence, full of insecurity and self-loathing, and is surrounded by relatives, courtiers, and councilors who think he doesn’t belong on his father’s throne.
Maia’s journey is the reader’s. We are almost as confused about court practices as Maia is. As
he muddles through, so does the reader. This is one of the most serious miscalculations of this book. While it is good to discover the world as Maia discovers it, the confusion isn't worth it.
In addition, the world-building is focused on names, government, and clans. Other more important things are unclear. There is very little of the fantastic, and those who are expecting to understand the magical differences between elves and goblins
(or between elves and men, for that matter) are hard-put to find any. And yes, there are airships, but not enough to make this book really steampunk. The elves and goblins could well be warring human tribes, one tribe darker than the other.
The book is a strange, compelling combination of the confusing and the simplistic. With its long list of names, it feels like a historical account. But there are so many wish-fulfillment characters, all placed in the right places to say soothing things to our main character to make him feel better about himself. The converse is also true. The ones who dislike the emperor are bad, worthy of mockery, unenlightened, greedy. Whoever loves the main character is good, whomever the main character loves is good. It’s so judgmental, easy, and childish.
There is a kind of old-fashioned feminism that is cringe-inducing. There are sorrowful, wimpy princesses who “want to study the stars” but are
instead forced to marry. There is the noble good (because he is on the main character's side) homosexual former priest who is being blackmailed. There is the lesbian who ran away from her father to become a sea captain. And Maia likes
and approves all these people because he is good. All these feminist issues have nothing to do with the main plot but are thrown in to make the emperor look nice, good. and progressive.
And yet, if one can battle the confusion, The Goblin Emperor, is a good read and Maia is a lovable character clearly and perfectly well-drawn. Read this book as a good story about court intrigue--but don't expect much fantasy.