The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison (Tor Books, April 1, 2014). Basically, it's about a decent young man (who reminded me of Sam from Discworld, because both have compassion that transcends social boundaries), thrust into a world of dysfunctional corruption and political intrigue, who is lonely, and trapped by power, who has to learn really really quickly who he can trust and how to get things done....
Maia never expected to be Emperor--his father, ruler of the Elflands, had other sons much more pleasing to him then the despised child of a despised goblin wife. And so, after the death of his mother when he was eight, Maia lived far from the imperial court, abused both physically and mentally by a bitter, drunken guardian.
Then the Emperor's airship explodes--and Maia is the only son left. Half-goblin though he is, he becomes the Emperor, and all unprepared he's forced into a world of daunting etiquette, court intrigue, power struggles, corruption, and treason. Still a teenager, innocent in many ways, Maia is at first at sea in the swirling morass of the court, and he struggles to shake the viciously critical voice of his abuser from his head. But as Maia grows in confidence and power, he must, for the sake of his own sanity, cling to the core of his self--and it is his compassion and basic decency that bring the greatest ripples of change to his empire.
The Fantasy Elements
The fantasy elements are pretty straightforward. The world is at a nascent industrial revolution stage(airships and mechanical are being build). There's some "magic," most obviously in the ability that some individuals have to communicate with the dead.
But of course the main fantasy element is that the people of the world are elves and goblins, and both have ears that convey body language (this disconcerted me right to the end). The elves and the goblins differ from each other in appearance (the goblins have dark skin and red eyes, and are more robust, the elves white skin and blue/green eyes) and in culture, but they intermarry, and there's a lot of that on the boarder between the two realms. Maia's mother was despised by the emperor not because she was the dark-skinned daughter of the Barizhan goblin king, but because he had dearly loved his previous wife, who died in childbirth. That being said, Maia's abusive guardian did not spare him racial taunts.
Issues of race and identity
I'm always a tad leery of books where the characters are "elf" or "goblins," words so loaded with preconceptions. And I make a habit of asking "Is it really necessary for these characters to be "elves/goblins?" In this case, it's not actually crucial; this could have been an alternate Europe/Africa world, with human people who had different skin tones. But I appreciated how the choice to make the characters "fantasy others" allowed Addison to come at issues of race and identity from a different direction. Fantasy such as this allows the familiar to be remigned afresh and strange, which, done well, is thought-provoking.
In any event, Maia is a dark-skinned person in a court where everyone else in power is light skinned, and he'd keenly aware of it. And it's not just mentioned once--his self-consciousness about his physical appearance, his observations of others, a large part of his sense of self, are shaped by this fact and it keeps coming up in his mind. Here's an example, when Maia is at a reception hosted by the Barizhan ambassador:
"It was the first time in his life Maia had been surrounded by people who were like him instead of only snow-white elves with their pale eyes, and he missed several names in the effort not to faint or hyperventilate or burst into tears." (page 195)
So in a nutshell, the issue of race pervades the story, and it's pretty thought-provoking.
(Here's what I'd like to see someday--beautiful dark-skinned elves and short, stocky white goblins. Because if your using fantasy to confront racism, why not go all the way. Except then the main character would be white, so it wouldn't be confronting racism in the same way. And without the negative-ness of "goblin" a lot of who Maia is in relation to the elves would be lost....)
This is also the only fantasy book I can think of in which a young male character is traumatized by an occasion when he was almost very horribly raped. It is also a book in which there are characters who are gay, and characters who might well be gay (or not). Sometimes in some cases this leads to complications. Heterosexuality is the norm, but it's nice to see some diversity. The role of women in a patriarchal society is also addressed, and very nicely too. Maia, himself oppressed and denied an education, is sympathetic to the women he meets who want more than marriage and children.
A specific criticism (or, how my personal reading experience could have been better)
It is a very complicated world that Katherine Addison has created here, not so much in terms of the big picture, but because there is a very large cast of characters, many of whom are related to each/plotting against each other/with complicated backstories. And her world comes with complicated naming conventions--perfectly believable, but rather hard to pick up quickly. Fast readers like me, who are bad at names in general, will be confused. I wish the explanatory note and the index had been put at the beginning instead of at the end, and I wish Addison had not relied on names as identifiers, but put in helpful phrases like "his father's aunt" or "the woman he would marry."
The book would have been a more pleasantly immersive experience if I hadn't been reading slowly because of not being at all sure who people were.
(In fairness, the confusion occasioned by naming conventions worked beautifully to make me empathize with Maia, who was experiencing his own confusions right along with me, so as a rhetorical device I can't really fault it.)
And finally, my Final Thought:
I liked it a lot. I don't have the urge to turn around right this sec and re-read it, but I can imagine I will want to in the future. I imagine I might enjoy it more a second time, knowing who everyone is.