The Goblin Emperor was exactly what I needed. First, I bought it recently when one of my local bookstores opened back up (in a limited socially distanced capacity), and it turned out to be the right kind of fantasy, still serious and interesting but ultimately hopeful.
I was worried at first because the opening pages present the grammar and forms of address used by the characters, and a 300-ish entry long dictionary of characters and place names that’s actually hard to use is you don’t know or remember a character’s full name. There was an XKCD comic years back that used an implied punchline something like “the more made up words a fantasy story has, the lower the quality of the story”, and I think as a general rule this can be true. However, at least in relation to the grammar part, it turns out to be genuinely relevant and a part of the story. I still have my doubts about the purpose and utility of that dictionary though. The grammar stuff comes up now and again because Maia, the protagonist, spends a lot of time trying to learn the proper high level court etiquette which includes speaking properly with important people.
The basic story follows Maia, the unwanted fourth son of the elven emperor who had been forced to marry a goblin princess for political reasons. Maia grows up in exile with a disgraced courtier who seems to take out all his frustration on his charge, but when a freak accident kills Maia’s father and three elder brothers, suddenly Maia is the new emperor. He has not grown up in the court, and so does not know the people or the way things work politically and socially. This could have so easily turned into either a tragedy or a chosen one story, and thankfully it becomes neither. So in addition to the underdog/ fish out of water new ruler trying to survive in many ways, it turns out that accident that killed Maia’s father and brothers was probably not an accident, so Maia also has to figure out who was responsible and this gets him drawn into a lot of suggestions about the darker sides of his father’s and ancestors’ reigns.
Maia ends up being a really well rounded character, basically good and decent, but self-aware enough to feel anger and resentment towards those who mistreated him in the past and to struggle with not letting power get to his head too much. Besides the racial issues that are somewhat suggested (not too much a focus of the main story but there) there are also issues of gender equality and a brief reference to an LGBTQ relationship. Most of the problems are political in nature, especially towards the end when Maia starts learning about why his father and brothers may have been killed and about the possibility of building a bridge.
What I really appreciated is that this was not a dark fantasy, nor was it too light. This is about as perfect a balance between the serious things fantasy can and often is used to address, but also manages a genuinely hopeful mostly happy ending.