The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.
ISBN-13: 978-0765326997Official Site
The airship Radiance of Cairado hung ominously beside her mooring mast like an isolated thundercloud against the predawn sky. Maia had not been in an airship since the age of eight, when he been brought to the Untheileneise Court for his mother's funeral, and his memories of that time were full of darkness. He remembered praying to Ulis to let him die, too.
On impulse, when the captain greeted him with a mumbled "Serenity" at the foot of the mooring mast, Maia stopped and said quietly, "We have nothing but confidence in you and your crew."
Maia, exiled at from a young age to a miserable estate for the misfortune of being the son of the fourth (and unfavored) wife of the Emperor, is awakened by unexpected news - his autocratic father and all his half-brothers have been killed in an airship accident and he is now Emperor of the Elflands.
Whisked off to court, the 18 year old Maia is thrust into a world he is ridiculously unprepared for. Although young, Maia is no fool. He realises that he has many enemies but has no choice but participate in the Byzantine rules of the court. He has allies as well as deadly rivals, although which is which is often unclear.
The Goblin Emperor is a deeply serious book that for some reason is set in a fantasy world of elves and goblins (Maia is half-goblin, another source of difficultly), with its own customs and technology. Magic exists but plays little part in the story, and the steampunky clockwork technology is not very important except in passing. There is little action, Maia spends his days trying to navigate the treacherous waters of courtly intrigue, occasionally making policy decisions.
This is not a novel in which a lot happens. Or rather, events occur but mainly off the page and Maia only finds out about them later. Imagine a James Bond movie where M gives Bond a mission and then staying with M sitting in the monthly MI6 budget meetings and having a working lunch with the head of MI5 discussing long-term planning. This literally happens in a subplot in The Goblin Emperor, Maia sends an agent off on an investigation and occasionally receives a short report back about things much more interesting than Maia (and the reader) are experiencing.
It sounds a little boring but I found myself getting into The Goblin Emperor. Once Maia starts to find his feet the story gets a lot more interesting as he begins to use the power he still feels uncomfortable with. Although still bound by tradition and the mantle of leadership, Maia starts to see how he can shrug off his father's legacy and forge his own destiny to an extent. As a coming of age character study this book succeeds in making us enjoy the protagonist's small triumphs.
A few things annoyed me. I have no idea why this is set in a fantasy world. It seems to me that it could easily be turned into historical fiction by changing a few words here and there, and removing references to the characters' pointy elf earsAlthough the descriptions of how the ears flatten and flex during strong emotions are entertaining.. Indeed, the parts of the novel really reminded me of I, Claudius (perhaps mixed with a little Yes, Minister). The overall plot is very similar although I, Claudius is a much better novelSee my I, Claudius Review.
The writing style is generally easy to read but the constant use of formal courtly language in the dialog really got on my nerves. And I never want to read the word "Serenity" (the Emperor's formal honorific) again, it must occur 1200 times in a 480 page novel.
The Goblin Emperor was nominated for a bunch of awards2014 Nebula
2015 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel
It won the 2015 Locus Award., I am not really sure why. It has lots of delightful little details and a keenly described fictional culture touching on race relations, class struggle, industrialisation and rebellion but none of which has much consequence on the story. Most of the characters are flat, either wholly well meaning or transparently scheming. The only thing that really makes it a proper novel is Maia's slow growth into the emperor's role and that just isn't that compelling. There isn't even that much intrigue.
So would I recommend you read The Goblin Emperor? I think so, despite my misgivings. It is just strange enough to be interesting and a pleasant enough read. Just don't expect much in the way of actual occurrences.