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Literature / The Goblin Emperor

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The castle is not actually on his head. We think.

A novel by Katherine Addison published April 1st, 2014.

Maia, fourth son of the emperor of the Elflands, finds himself in a position he never expected when his father and all three of his older brothers die during a mysterious airship accident, leaving him next in line for the throne. Unfortunately for Maia, his half-goblin heritage meant he was The Unfavorite of his father, and he grew up largely in seclusion, exiled to a manor in the countryside. Thrust suddenly into the spotlight at the Untheileneise, he is woefully unprepared to deal with either the backstabbing that goes on or the actual administrative and diplomatic work required of him.

A sequel series, The Cemeteries of Amalo, focusing on detective-priest Thara Celehar has been released and is currently consists of The Witness for the Dead (June 2021), with The Grief of Stones following in June 2022.

This novel contains examples of:

  • A Child Shall Lead Them: In this case, it's very much not a good thing, as said children end up being puppets for their regents and, more often than not, don't live to see adulthood. At one point during Sheveän's failed coup, Maia wonders if that isn't one of the reasons why Idra refuses to have anything to do with it.
  • Abdicate the Throne: Lord Chavar and Sheveän try to force Maia to abdicate in favor of his nephew Idra. It goes badly when Idra doesn't want the first thing to do with it.
  • Abusive Parents: Maia's father despised him and put him out of sight, out of mind at some back-country estate, while his guardian Setheris was emotionally and physically abusive. Maia's mother, on the other hand, is never described as anything other than loving.
  • Acrofatic: The Great Avar, Maia's maternal grandfather. Maia's first impression is that he is "mountainously fat" but he is surprisingly light on his feet.
  • All-Loving Hero: Maia's very nearly this. He's exceptionally generous to his servants and makes a point of knowing their names, tries to be kind to his family on his father's side even when they have nothing but disdain for him, and even tries to forgive his bodyguard, Dazhis, for betraying him.
  • Altar Diplomacy: A fact of life for high born children in the setting. Maia is the product of one that didn't work out well and doesn't want to participate himself, although he eventually gives in. However, one of his first independent actions as emperor is putting his foot down on forcing his half-sister into a marriage she doesn't want mere weeks after the deaths of her father and brothers.
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: Despite the widespread presence of ghosts and ghouls in the elf lands, it is somehow fashionable to doubt that clerical witnesses like Celehar are able to speak to dead spirits. This gets explored more in the sequels.
  • Aren't You Going to Ravish Me?: Nedaö Vechin tries to encourage Maia to support an engineering project backed by her sister and her love interest and is offended that he doesn't take her back to the palace for sex after she offers. Downplayed in that after further consideration she ends up apologizing for trying this and thanks him for not actually going through with it.
  • Arranged Marriage: Maia's future empress is decided by a vote in parliament. Almost all marriages between nobility are arranged for political reasons.
  • Attempted Rape: Implied to have happened to a younger Csevet at the hands of Eshevis Tethimar, who didn't proposition him so much as "grab"; when Csevet fought him off (and bit him), Eshevis ordered him hunted to death by his lackeys, and Csevet barely escaped with his life.
  • Badass Bookworm: Cala is even-tempered, kind, and often implied to be absorbed in his studies when he's not occupied with guarding the emperor. He casts a death spell on Eshevis Tethimar after the latter tries to assassinate Maia at the Winternight ball.
  • Batman Gambit: Csevet gets the parliament to choose his preferred candidate for Empress by presenting her alongside two other candidates with strong but opposing factional supporters. This makes his actual choice look like a reasonable compromise to everyone.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Idra is very protective of his little sisters.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Drazhada, due to Maia's father having married five times. The first wife was set aside for being barren, the second, third, and fourth wives were all dead before thirty, and the fifth wife is young and stupid with pretensions to grandeur. Not to mention all the minor members of the family running around.
  • Bury Your Gays: In a particularly cruel twist, Ethuveraz is a deeply homophobic culture and one gay is forced to bury another, at least in the backstory. Thara Celehar's male lover, unable to escape his marriage to an abusive wife, murdered her and hid the body; since as a clerical Witness, Celehar's job is Interrogating the Dead, he had no choice but to level the murdered woman's accusation against her husband, his beloved, who was executed. Luckily, Celehar himself survives the novel, and one of Maia's goblin aunts is explicitly reported to be living as a man, with a successful career as a pirate captain and with a wife of her own.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Maia soon learns to feel these. Early on, the constant subtle intrigues combined with his lack of court knowledge grates on him, as does his total lack of privacy after being raised in near isolation. Later, he still keenly feels that lack of privacy, but recognizes his servants and guards' loyalty and pride of service, and bears that burden better to avoid offending them.
  • Chessmaster Sidekick: Csevet has all the political savvy Maia lacks.
  • The Clan: Any of the elvish families.
  • Don't Fear the Reaper: Ulis isn't the warm and fuzzy sort, but he's a respected member of the pantheon whose clergy play a constructive role in society and his priest Thara Celehar is a genuinely decent guy.
  • Drowning My Sorrows:
    • Maia's caregiver Setheris did this, often to the point of being The Alcoholic. His wife, who was not sent into exile with him, is horrified to find out.
    • Maia himself is tempted more than once to get drunk due to the pressures of his position. He refrains because he doesn't want to follow Setheris' example, and because he knows his staff will silently reproach him for it.
  • Drunk with Power: Defied. Once Maia realizes he can yank Setheris's chain, he forces himself not to.
  • Due to the Dead: Funerary, burial, and mourning customs are important in Ethuvereise culture, and as The Cemeteries of Amalo shows, there are practical implications of this, at least in the north. Sometimes clashing ideas of what is Due to the Dead cause conflict between characters—Maia wanted to pursue all possible avenues of investigation in order to see justice done, including Interrogating the Dead, while Sheveän was angry at the bodies of her husband and in-laws being messed with (even by a priest of the god of death following proper ritual).
  • Elves Versus Dwarves: The elves see goblins as barbarians and goblins see the elves as nancies, but in reality, both societies are technologically advanced.
  • Expressive Ears: Both elves and goblins in this setting show a lot of emotion through their ears, such as pinning them back in discomfort or lowering them in sadness. Maia has to focus hard to keep his ears still in order to appear suitably in control of his emotions.
  • The Extremist Was Right: Shulivar, the man responsible for killing Maia's father and brothers, certainly thinks he was. After he is caught, he happily tells Maia that the political reforms Maia has been working on throughout the novel were exactly the sort of things Shulivar wanted and expected from Maia if he became Emperor, and that while having to kill a bunch of innocent people (not to mention being about to be executed himself) was regrettable, he is very pleased with how it all turned out.
  • The Fair Folk: The story is about elves and goblins, though they could easily have been humans with very little changed.
  • Fantastic Racism: As a bonus, elves are fair-skinned and goblins are dark. Mixed offspring are common, and their skin runs the spectrum of grays.
  • Gaslamp Fantasy: It's set in a constructed world, but one fairly socially and technologically reminiscent of 19th century Earth. This is particularly evident in the sequel series, which gets away from the more ceremonial and tradition-bound atmosphere of the Untheileneise Court to the lives of everyday city people.
  • Good Old Ways: Maia wishes to separate himself from the notorious corruption of the last few reigns, and does so by reverting to an older pattern for his reigning name. This only applies to the court ways, though—Maia is progressive with social and economic reform, and argues against his advisors when they try to suppress change in the name of tradition.
  • Happily Married: All reports of Varenechibel and his third marriage to Pazhiro are that it was a happy one until she died in childbirth.
  • Haughty Help: Some of Maia's household clearly disapprove the Emperor they serve. Beshelar, one his his bodyguards, is particularly prone to finding the Emperor's behaviour scandalous, although he's still scrupulously loyal and Maia manages to establish a good relationship with him eventually. The same is not true of another bodyguard, Dazhis, who keeps his disapproval hidden until his Bodyguard Betrayal.
  • Hero of Another Story: The other characters are shown to be having their own adventures when Maia's not around. Thara Celehar, the priest/private-detective, could support an entire novel on his own—and the author clearly agreed, as the sequel is set to follow him after the events of The Goblin Emperor.
  • Hidden Backup Prince:
    • Maia wasn't so much hidden as banished to a remote country estate and almost completely forgotten about by the court (as he was such a non-entity, politically) until the airship explosion killed every other viable heir. Despite his technically high birth being known, he was treated horribly by his guardian (who was given the duty as a punishment) and subsequently has lots of empathy for people who were also treated badly by those in power.
    • The Great Avar (who lacks even an illegitimate male heir) is tempted to treat Maia as one for Barizhan, but knows that their customs wouldn't allow it and the resulting civil war would be far worse than the one that's already bound to spring up after his death.
      Thou would be a sword thrust into the anthill of the Avarsin, truly, and I should take the thought most happily to my grave. But it cannot be done without destroying Barizhan, and that I do not want.
  • Hunting "Accident": Toward the end of the novel, Maia inquires about the family of Tethimar, an all-around terrible person. Besides several sisters, it's mentioned that Tethimar also had a younger brother that died many years ago in a hunting accident. It's not spelled out if this was an accident or an "accident", but since Tethimar is on record as having "hunted" another person at least once, the reader probably has good reason to be suspicious.
  • Hunting the Most Dangerous Game: It's revealed that in the past, Tethimar and his hunting party attempted to do this to Csevet as revenge/a cruel "joke" after Csevet fought off Tethimar's attempted rape by biting him.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: Maia is basically only capable of doing anything at the start of his reign because he has Csevet on his side.
  • I Can't Dance: One of many things Setheris never saw fit to teach Maia while growing up in exile. Once the ice thaws between them, Csethiro gladly offers to teach him.
  • I Just Want to Have Friends: Maia's childhood of isolation sets him up for this, and forms the backbone of his character arc. He's aware the burdens of Emperor will affect any relationship he builds. He still attempts friendships within his staff (Cala outright tells him they cannot be his friends), and within the court, all of which fail in the end. Maia even recognizes his desire to please everyone affects his decision making and becomes more effective afterwards. By the end, he comes full circle, recognizing even if his staff cannot be friends in a common sense, that loyalty and fondness to each other is worth pursuing regardless, and their bonds make him a stronger Emperor.
  • Impoverished Patrician: The court is littered with minor nobles who risk bankrupting themselves just to keep up with the latest fashions and trends.
  • Impractically Fancy Outfit: The entire Untheilineise Court deals in these, and every variation in outfit is alive with meaning. Sometimes it simply indicates what the wearer can afford, or that they decided not to accent their vivid eyes, but when it comes to anything regarding mourning colors, tread carefully.
  • Interrogating the Dead: Clerical Witnesses for the Dead have the ability to do this via magic.
  • Interspecies Romance: The main character is half-goblin, half-elf. Significant interbreeding occurs between the two species, particularly near the border of their lands. It's still looked down on in the upper classes, though.
  • Intro Dump: A good 50-75% of the book, depending on where the reader finds they can come up for air. Very much intentional. Maia has lived his entire life in isolation and now has an entire empire and its court to contend with. You must suffer as he has suffered. Although there is a list of names and travel guide to elvish formalities at the end of the book, should the constant switching between names and titles prove too opaque.
  • Irony: Setheris Nelar's ambition and thirst for power led to him being banished from court and relegated to the role of Maia's guardian. He greatly resented this state of affairs, and took out his frustration and bitterness on the boy. Had he bothered to be nicer to his ward, he could've become one of the most powerful people in the Elflands upon Maia's ascension, but instead gets relegated again to minor positions since the new emperor hates him.
  • King Bob the Nth: Varenechibel IV, Edrehasivar VII, and of course a number of historical emperors before them.
  • Liminal Being: A woman betrothed but not married has left her natal family but not been attached to her marital one — making her permanently this when her betrothed dies.
  • Liminal Time: Maia thinks on how his state between his ascension and his coronation is this.
  • Locked Away in a Monastery: The plotters of the first coup had this as their (stated) goal for Maia, with the plan to force him into a monastery dedicated to contemplating silence and the stars after he "abdicated". One of Maia's more spiteful thoughts in the aftermath is that he resented the plotters all the more because the offer was just so damn tempting compared to a lifetime of political wrangling as emperor.
  • Long-Lived: Although elves in fiction are usually this or even The Ageless, it's averted for elves and goblins here. They have lifespans comparable to preindustrial humans, meaning they are considered old in their sixties and very elderly indeed by eighty. Played straight by Dachensol Habrobar, a member of some unspecified species, who has been making signet rings for five centuries and expects to still be working when Maia's grandchildren reach adulthood (at the time he says this, Maia doesn't even have children).
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Invoked when Maia's father tried to deny that Maia was his, but unfortunately for him he only slept with Chenelo the one time to consummate the marriage and she was obviously a virgin at the time.
  • More Insulting than Intended: In the aftermath of the first coup attempt against Maia, Setheris’ wife takes the incredible risk of chiding the Emperor on behalf of her husband, asking whether it was just of the young ruler to send the man who raised him to a thankless position because of some grudge. Maia does not take this question well, and shows her the scars that he had gotten when Setheris had knocked him into a fire screen when he was twelve.
  • Morton's Fork: Idra uses this on his mother during her attempted coup. He knows his history and has no interest in establishing a regency government that would put him in the cross hairs of every plotter in the empire.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain:
    • Setheris disparages and belittles Maia at every opportunity, to say nothing of his behavior before Maia becomes emperor, but his advice and knowledge of the court is the only reason Maia was able to achieve unquestionable legitimacy before one faction or another could muscle him off the throne in the early days of his reign.
    • Tethimar's plot implicated much of his powerful family and their supporters. By failing at his brazen assassination attempt he gave Maia very good justification to break up an obstreperous power bloc that had been plaguing his father for decades. It also gave him an excellent reason to show clemency to the first set of plotters - at least they were trying to maintain a pretense of legality, however transparent it might have been.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Maia, occasionally to an inappropriate (if well-meaning) degree.
    • At one point, he is given a gift of silk so fine that its making is known to blind the manufacturers, and considers asking his secretary to track down those blinded by his gift so he could show favor to them. He disregards this due to the fact, the Ethuveraz is absolutely filled with this sort of early-industrial inhumanity. Tracking these folks down: not terribly practical.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed: Four of Varenechibel IV's five marriages correspond to the wives of Henry VIII. (Varenechibel otherwise does not fit this trope: while he shared Henry's many marriages and vindictive streak, he was cold and aloof rather than a Boisterous Bruiser. Maia's goblin grandfather the Great Avar, on the other hand, shares Henry's body type and Heir Club for Men issues, and has a more exuberant personality.)
    • Arbelan, the divorced first wife with fertility problems, corresponds to Catherine of Aragon.
    • Pazhiro, the beloved third wife who died in childbirth, corresponds to Jane Seymour (Royalty).
    • Chenelo, the fourth wife, a foreign princess unenthusiastically wed for political reasons turned Unwanted Spouse, corresponds to Anne of Cleves.
    • Csoru, the fifth wife, the overindulged beauty young enough to be his daughter, corresponds to Catherine Howard.
  • Offered the Crown: Idra is offered the chance to replace Maia. He wants nothing to do with the plot.
  • Our Elves Are Different: The elves regard themselves as superior to the goblins, but are often seen as being punctilious and cold by foreigners. Although there are cultural differences, most differences between the species appear to be largely superficial.
  • Our Goblins Are Different: The main character, Maia, is half-goblin. Goblins are apparently the same species as elves (they're interfertile), and the differences between them are mainly cultural, with some superficial but striking physical differences (hair, skin, and eye color).
  • Out-Gambitted: Tethimar believed he was just using Shulivar in his plan to assassinate the emperor and assume power. Shulivar, however, used Tethimar's resources to execute his own plan to assassinate the emperor and also break the power of Tethimar and some of his supporters.
  • Parental Neglect:
    • Maia was sent into exile with his mother and then re-sent into exile after his mother died. Basically his father tried to forget he existed.
    • Varenechibel was also lacking as a grandfather as he doted on Idra but ignored his granddaughters.
    • Sheveän is revealed to not be the best of mothers, either, as her daughters are much more attached to their nurse.
    • Maru, The Great Avar, Maia's goblin-side grandfather, also gets briefly called on ignoring Maia and his mother after marrying her off, although to his credit, he admits he was a fool to do so.
  • Parental Substitute: It lasted only very briefly, but after Maia's mother died another noblewoman took care of him for a while. They each remember the other fondly.
  • Parents as People: Varenechibal IV was a horrible, neglectful, and abusive father to Maia and not much better to his granddaughters. However, even people like Setheris who have plenty of reasons to dislike him admit that he was not corrupt, and family life aside Maia admits that much of his Imperial policy was reasonable. Maia finds it very jarring to deal with people who loved and respected his father for good reasons, and doesn't think he necessarily stands up that well in comparison.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage:
    • Maia and Csethiro seem well on their way to this by the end of the novel.
    • It is mentioned that Varenechibel and his third wife Pazhiro had this, making her death by childbirth all the more tragic.
  • Patchwork Kids: Offspring of goblins (jet-black skin) and elves (milk-white skin) are varying shades of grey, depending on how many generations ago the crossbreeding occurred. Maia is described as being slate grey, and he specifically has his father's striking grey eyes.
  • Police Are Useless: There are two investigations into the death of Maia's father: One run by the Lord Chancellor using the resources of the entire government, and a one-man investigation by Thara Celehar, a cynical, burned-out ex-priest who Maia sends off on his own. Guess which one is more successful.
  • Police Psychic: Clerical witnesses for the dead are, among other duties, police necromancers.
  • Pose of Supplication: Csevet does this twice. Once when informing Maia that he was now Emperor and once after addressing Maia in an unforgivably inappropriate way. Well, Csevet considers it inappropriate. Maia doesn’t mind.
  • Promotion to Parent: After Sheveän is arrested, Maia assumes the role of her children's guardian, which is awkward seeing as he's only four years older than Idra.
  • Pun: The Empress Chenelo was functionally banished with Maia before her death to Isvaroë - read as "Is far away".
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Maia becomes one by the end of the novel.
  • Royal Blood: The main character's father is the late Emperor of the Elflands.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: While there's quite a bit of pageantry and delegation to being emperor, whoever has the title is expected to put the work in to actually rule their empire. Maia is rather overwhelmed at the start, and it takes several months for him to feel he has a handle on the various nuances of the position.
  • Screw the Rules, I Make Them!: One of the finer points of being emperor Maia has to learn is the difference between the rules and the law, a critical distinction for his position. While the emperor's words can literally be the law, he still exists in a society bounded by rules, and there are set procedures to go about making laws and disseminating them through the country. An emperor who flouts the laws he is responsible for making is dangerous, but an emperor who never breaks a rule is almost as bad as he can never see when a law needs to be changed.
    The emperor is not above the law, he is the law!
  • Seppuku: Revethvoran, which involves cutting one's wrists, upper arms, and throat, though the narration mentions that few manage all five cuts. Dazhis commits revethvoran as punishment for his part in Sheveän and Chavar's attempted coup, and Cala mentions that if Maia had died, they would have been required to do likewise.
  • Share Phrase: It's usually Csevet's line, but many characters will say this after Maia thanks them for doing their duties, offers them courtesies servants don't expect from an emperor, or saving him from making a mistake:
    "It is our job, Serenity."
  • Shout-Out: The Evressai barbarians of the steppes dispose of their dead by leaving them on a sacred rock outcrop for vultures—a reference to the "sky burial" practiced by real-life people of Central Asia.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Well on the idealistic side. Maia is a genuinely decent guy, and most of the courtiers get over their racism once they get to know him.
  • Spanner in the Works:
    • Idra, to Sheveän and Chavar's whole coup — they had Maia cold, but his would-be-successor's adamant refusal to take the throne delays things enough for guards to arrive and kick down the door.
    • Maia himself is one to Tethimar, who apparently either forgot the Emperor had another son, or assumed he would be an easily-disposed-of nonentity.
  • Spare to the Throne: Maia was never supposed to inherit the throne, and is totally unprepared for the royal court. He was a distant fourth in the line of succession, and the only reason he wasn't lower on the list was because political circumstances meant he couldn't be disinherited outright.
  • Succession Crisis: The only way the main character ascends the throne, when his father and three older brothers all die in a freak accident.
  • Star Struck Speechless: Maia is left even more socially awkward than usual when he meets Nedaö Venchin, a famous prima soprano. This an Inverted Trope because as the emperor of the Elflands Maia is in-universe by far socially superior to the common-born Min Venchin. However Maia was raised in near complete isolation and he finds Min Venchin to be strikingly beautiful so his awkwardness makes sense. Unfortunately, this does not protect Maia from being badly mocked (behind his back, of course) for his crush.
  • Steampunk: There are airships, a subplot featuring a steam powered bridge and mention of a steam powered unicorn (although only the head and neck move).
  • Take Our Word for It: The Clocksmith's Guild presents Maia with an "emperor clock" for his birthday; the best description we get of it is that it is "surprising", as most people who see it try and fail to explain its wonders.
  • Taking the Veil: Becoming a votary is the simplest solution for a woman who is betrothed but not married if her fiancé dies, as her legal status is ambiguous.
    • A rare male version is offered to Maia during the first attempted coup. After he abdicates, he'll be sent to a monastery of the goddess Cstheio, to take a vow of silence. The worst part is, it sounds so nice in comparison to the stress of being Emperor, even knowing he would almost certainly be killed shortly after arriving.
  • Title Drop: It happens during Varenechibel IV's wake:
    He could imagine all too clearly what Setheris and his ilk would say about the goblin emperor — and if they were not calling him that yet, then it was only a matter of time — chatting publicly with the Great Avar's representative.
  • Translation Convention: In an unusually overt example, it's made clear that there are more grammatical persons in the language being spoken than modern English, and the Royal "We" is specifically noted to be an alternate singular pronoun distinct from the plural (and used by others besides the emperors). The later books show that the "formal first" is primarily used in the imperial court and not often resorted to by commoners except in particularly formal settings.
  • Undying Loyalty: The Emperor has this from his bodyguards by oath though Dazhis betrays this. Maia ends up generating it in Csevet more or less just by being himself.
  • Unexpected Successor: Maia is the Emperor of the Elflands' fourth son.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Shulivar, the proletarian airship worker who made the "incendiary device" that blew up the old Emperor's airship, double-crossed his employer Tethimar, deliberately detonating the bomb early so that Maia's father and brothers would die, Tethimar's plot would be foiled, and Maia would ascend the throne. Despite the fact that he committed treason and mass-murder, Shulivar is so reasonable and serene that he makes fellow half-goblin Maia very nervous.
  • The Wrongful Heir to the Throne: A large part of the court holds this opinion of Maia, but most are willing to let him prove his incompetence before acting. The exceptions include his Prime Minister who is still loyal to his father's policy goals, his sister-in-law who wants her son to be on the throne, and the man who instigated the plot that killed his father and brothers.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Averted. The author uses "thou" and "thee" correctly as the familiar forms of "you". She has a Ph.D. in Medieval Literature.
  • Zeppelins from Another World: The book opens with a zeppelin crash that kills the emperor and most of his close family. They're used for transporting couriers and cargo, but are implied to be noisy, cramped, and dangerous, so people only use them if they're in a hurry.