Saturday, November 2, 2013

Review: "Nine Goblins" by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon)

Only an utter lunkhead wants responsibility, which is why goblin commanders are traditionally chosen for their stupidity. Unfortunately, Sergeant Nessilka is just clever enough to know that she's in way over her head. Keeping the Nineteenth Infantry safe from elven warriors, poison ivy, and poorly-constructed goblin machinery is a 24/7 job, without vacation days or a dental plan.

A wizard's spell gone awry lands Nessilka and the Whinin' Nineteenth miles behind enemy lines. What's worse, the forest stinks of elves and the human farmlands lie abandoned in that eerie fashion that typically begins a ghost story around the campfire. Getting her nine soldiers home will take Nessilka far more wit and luck than any goblin commander has.

The elven veterinarian Sings-To-Trees isn't terribly concerned about the goblins in his zucchini patch. After a few decades of delivering baby unicorns, patching up trolls, and taking the hands-on solution to eggbound cockatrices, little disturbs him. But with the goblins comes a whiff of strange, dark magic, and visions of ghastly creatures even he has never seen. He can't say for certain whether Nessilka and her goblins are to blame--but if they don't figure it out fast, all of them could be in much bigger trouble than anyone bargained for.

  4 out of 5 stars
(grump below the cut)
T. Kingfisher is the pen name of Ursula Vernon, author and illustrator of the Dragonbreath series for children; Nurk: The Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew; and the Eisner-nominated Digger (winner of the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story and the 2013 Mythopoeic Award for Adult Fantasy Literature.)

I am a longtime fan of Vernon's work. When she announced the release of a new novella, Nine Goblins, I leapt at the chance to read and review it. I planned to start it one evening and finish it up over the next few, but as soon as I had begun, I realized I would be reading past midnight... again. I kept flipping pages with a big ol' grin on my face.

In the author's own words:
This story will not force you into painful personal growth, it will not tear your heart out, it will not unmake you. These characters are hopefully people you'll want to spend a few hours with and maybe come back to occasionally when the world is being unkind... that's all.
Nine Goblins is a small tongue-in-cheek fantasy adventure, tracking two converging plotlines until their inevitable collision. Nessilka is trying to get her troop of nincompoops safely back to Goblinhome, while Sings-To-Trees tends to the increasingly strange apparitions in his yard and investigates the dark magic creeping through his forest.

It isn't a quest on the epic scale, though it may seem that way to the characters undergoing it. This is a story about being very far from home, among people who are not like you, with a good number of riffs on fantasy cliches.

The narrative voice is a delight to read, shifting seamlessly between epic intonations and wry commentary. It's the voice of someone telling a yarn around a campfire: leisurely, not terribly serious, but mesmerizing nonetheless. In that sense, it reminds me of the Oz books, or Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles--only rather more grubby in subject matter. (At last, a book that meets my "grody" requirement!)

For those unfamiliar with Ursula Vernon's delicious prose, indulge me by acquainting yourself with this chunk from Chapter Two.
Once upon a time, goblins had lived everywhere. 
Like rabbits, goblins are an immensely adaptable , quick-breeding lot, capable of living under practically any conditions. There are hill goblins and marsh goblins, forest goblins who live in trees and savannah goblins who live in networked tunnels like prairie dog towns. There are desert goblins and jungle goblins, miniature island goblins and heavy-bodied tundra goblins.

Wherever a goblin happens to live, he complains about it constantly. This is actually a sign of affection. A desert goblin will complain endlessly about the beastly heat and the dreadful dryness and the spiky cactus. He will show you how his sunburn is peeling and the place where the rattlesnake bit him and the place where he bit the rattlesnake. He will be thoroughly, cheerfully, miserable.

If you took him away from the desert, he would be lost. He wouldn’t know what to complain about. He might make a few half-hearted attempts, but he would eventually lapse into confused silence, and return as quickly as possible to the desert he loves. Complaining is how he shows he’s paying attention to all the little nuances of his home. This is basically goblin psychology in a nutshell.

Goblin cooks wait in anticipation for the rude comments about the flavor. A goblin courting the lady goblin of his dreams will point out the new lumps and splotches on her skin and ask if she’s been sick lately because she looks off color and hey, is that a tick behind her left ear?

Goblins are in many ways stoics. When they’re genuinely unhappy, they shut up and put their heads down and just try to blunder through. (Goblin divorces are notable for their lack of screaming.) If a goblin eats something without complaining, it was so bad he doesn’t want to dwell on it. (Gruel among the Nineteenth Infantry had recently reached this point, and breakfast had become a silent, glum affair.)

A goblin trying to make the best of things is a very tragic sight indeed. So the goblins lived over much of the land, and the woods and plains and deserts and whatnot rang with the cheery sounds of goblin complaints.

Then the humans came.
The copy I read suffered from some of  the usual digital-format problems with occasional missing words and so on, but nothing that affected readability.

The book's biggest flaw is that it ended faster than I would have liked. Which is half a compliment, but also a genuine complaint. The pacing is a little uneven. Reading it in digital format, I could always see how much was left on the scroll bar--with the result that I was very aware that the primary conflict isn't addressed until very late in the book. The resolution, while fitting and cleverly handled, happens very quickly. With such an expansive, playfully meandering first half, I would have wanted to spend an equal weight of time unraveling the mystery and working out how to 1) fix the wizard problem and 2) get Nessilka's goblins home.

Sings-To-Trees at work, as illustrated by the author
Speaking of wizards: Vernon's depiction of magic as a form of psychosis is one of many unexpected delights inside the book. AMD, or Arcane Manifestation Disorder, is unpredictable, not necessarily useful, and often dangerous. For all that--when all the teleporting and lightning-throwing is over and done with--wizards are a little bit pitiable. Nessilka remarks that they have a hard time fending for themselves.

While the author may claim her novella will not tear your heart out, I felt a definite twinge at that line.

Nine Goblins is reportedly published under the T. Kingfisher pen name to prevent it from being filed with Vernon's other books in the children's section. It would appeal more to the quirky, genre-savvy adult (which accounts for pretty much all of you, dear readers.) There is some talk of splattery death-by-elephant, and gross veterinarian situations with anyone familiar with James Herriot can imagine. The only inappropriate-for-most-children content is the gruesome fate of a human village where a particularly selfish wizard gets out of control.

In the end, I loved every page of Nine Goblins, and I only wish there were more pages on the back half to "weight" the story more evenly. I hope that Vernon will revisit these characters. I would be happy to go on many more adventures with Sings-To-Trees and Captain Finchbones, and with Sergeant Nessilka and the Whinin' Nineteenth.

Nine Goblins is available on Amazon and Smashwords.

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