Title: The Goblin Emperor
Author: Katherine Addison
(CW // Suicide — note: “The Goblin Emperor” does not contain references to suicide, but my notes in the review after the jump does)
Are there LGBT characters? Sure, there’s a gay character but he has almost no bearing on the plot. That’s not to say he isn’t an important, or in some ways critical, character, but his role is still relatively minor and besides, I would go so far as to say that rather than focusing on whether this character or that is gay, I am going to say that the spirit of the book is undeniably queer.
Brief summary / book review: CD Covington described Maia, our main character and Goblin Emperor, as a “pure cinnamon roll.” And you know what? She’s absolutely right. Because amid all the court politics and all the conniving and backstabbing that typically happens in stories like these, Maia isn’t a willing participant in the darker aspects of ruling. He doesn’t want to eliminate enemies (well, save one). He doesn’t want to hurt people. He doesn’t want punishment, or retribution, or anything like that.
No. His main goal? He just wants to make friends.
And that speaks to the spirit of the book — so much of queer life is defined by the painful, internal process of self discovery, of coming to a deeper realization of self and identity, followed by the need to find like-minded people, or at least people who understand and accept them. In short: making friends.
One major caveat: “Who am I?” is a universal question, however, and not limited to just us queers. Even people who aren’t part of any marginalized group still grapple with deep questions about what it means to be alive in any given moment, and what it is we ultimately want and need.
What brings “The Goblin Emperor” into the world of queerness, however, is the concept of found family and forging meaningful connections where none had existed before. For a lot of people — and LGBTQ+ people, too, if they’re lucky — the whole “found family” thing seems vaguely nice. Like oh yeah, these are the friends I’ve made in college, sort of thing.
Speaking for myself, my actual family and friends is my found family. When I came out, I was lucky enough to be accepted by those who I cared about. I am unbelievably fortunate to be in this position, while so many aren’t.
For too many LGBTQ+ people, especially those who are on the more marginalized end of the spectrum (e.g. trans Black people), finding a family isn’t just a pleasant added bonus to a life. It’s essential for survival. Literally — more than half of trans male teens have tried to commit suicide, according to the HRC. This is a horrifying statistic and I don’t know what else to say to that except I wish I could give all of those kids a hug and tell them that it’ll get better. But it speaks to the necessity of a found family — having a place where you feel like you belong can genuinely mean the difference between life and death.
Minor sidetrack: The TV show POSE actually does a good job of conveying this (and it’s just a great show. Anything that has Billy Porter in it is essential viewing — sorry, I don’t make the rules, I just enforce them). And while POSE is more explicitly focused on the Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ experience in 1980’s New York City, and “The Goblin Emperor” is…not, there is the commonality in the sense that Maia feels alienated from the world he lives in.
He was raised in a distant place, far from the court, and is a half-goblin in a kingdom of elves. His mother was exiled, and he only inherited the throne because literally everyone else ahead of him in the line of succession died in a freak (and possibly suspicious?) accident.
Arriving in court, he’s thrown in a world he doesn’t understand, with histories he hasn’t absorbed, rituals and rites of passages that are foreign to him but second nature to those around him. He doesn’t know who he can trust, and understands that people around him don’t like him, and want to manipulate him for his own ends. Who is being genuine to him, and who’s using him?
And who’s behind the deaths of those in the line of succession? Is his life in danger, too?
So, yeah. He needs to make friends. Real ones. Because he might not survive without them.
As dark as the stakes are, I want to remind you that this review started with me quoting CD Covington, who called Maia a “pure cinnamon roll.” And here is the big strength of this book — it is a hopepunk epic that stars a genuinely kind, genuinely warm person who wants to make the lives of those around him better. He wants to have people he can trust, rely on, and love, because he knows how important those things are, and that these are essential to good rule.
In that, finding a family isn’t just about saving his own skin; it’s also about saving the kingdom he now rules.
This book is like wrapping yourself in a soft, fuzzy blanket by the fire. It makes the case that being a genuinely good person can actually make a difference. It rejects the grimdark thesis that only assholes can get ahead, that the only way to win is by making sure everyone else around you loses. There are dark moments in this book, to be sure, and it includes violence and treachery and all the gory details you’d expect from any palace intrigue, but there’s also compassion and kindness and sensitivity towards others. It’s a great representation of the hopepunk genre, and I loved every word of it.
About the ‘Are There LGBT Characters’ series of posts: Being a gay reader, I am interested in LGBT books, but I haven’t always seen reviews clearly note if there are LGBT characters and how significant they are. These mini reviews are my way of addressing this problem.