Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor recently made the short list for this year's Nebula award, and with good reason. The story is fascinating, the world complex, and the hero utterly likeable. (It's also a little dense, but that's a separate issue).
Maia is fourth in line for the throne of the Elven emperor, a largely overlooked son of the emperor by his goblin wife. After his mother's death, he's relegated to the outer reaches of the empire with a singularly unappealing guarding, and taught little outside of rigid court courtesies. Then word comes that the emperor and his three closest heirs have all died in an airship explosion, and his world changes radically.
It becomes clear early on that Maia is wildly out of his depth: he races to the capitol to outmaneuver those who are scheming to take his position, but once there, he finds himself hemmed in by rigid protocol, and unsure who of the many people who seem to hate him he can actually trust. The real marvel of this story is that it keeps readers (at least, it did me), glued to the page despite the sometimes deliberate pacing. This isn't a war story, like so many epic fantasies seem to be, and I loved seeing Maia gradually find his place in the intricate political world Addison sets up.
While the worldbuilding was fascinating (the world has some magic, but runs mostly on steam power), I was drawn primarily to Maia himself, who strives to differentiate himself from his father by establishing a reign notable for kindness and bridge-building, in more ways than one. As the story unfolded, I found myself grieving for the unexpected betrayals Maia faces, and cheering when he discovered new allies (the loneliness he faces in the book is terrifyingly believable: early on, his chamber men tell him, "We cannot be your friends.") And parts of the ending made me actually tear up--an unusual reaction for me!
My only complaint about the book is that I struggled with the complex nomenclature Addison set up, and there are lots of characters, so it took me a while to figure out who was who. I read this as a kindle book; I think it might be easier to have a hard copy where it's easier to flip to the back of the book to consult the extensive list of names.