Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Book Review: Goblins (2012) by Philip Reeve

In the field of steampunk literature (Teen division), Philip Reeve rules with a brass and mahogany fist. His seven-volume Mortal Engines series is simply one of the best achievements in imaginative writing in the last few decades. With Goblins he's taking a crack at fantasy (Young Adult regiment), and if the result isn't likely to be as seminal as Mortal Engines, it's still head and shoulders above the usual standard of YA fantasy titles.

Goblins could be described as fan fiction in the sense that Reeve has taken a sideways look at Tolkien's Middle-Earth and decided that someone needs to write a humorous story from the the point of view of the goblins. Reeve's goblins are foul and fell creatures, but since they're raised from birth (hatched, actually) according to the maxim of spare the mallet, spoil the goblin, one could say that it's a case of nurture rather than nature that accounts for their anti-social behavior. The goblins live in Clovenstone, a massive and ruined city/fortress that was once ruled by the dreaded Lych Lord. They spend most of their time beating up on each other, with the occasional raid on human settlements to relieve the monotony. Skarper, a young goblin, learns to read, which makes him unique amongst goblins, but it also leads to him being catapulted off the battlements of Clovenstone after an unwise display of his literacy. He then meets Henwyn, a teenage boy and wannabe hero who's left home after an unfortunate cheesemaking accident. The two join up and experience more adventures than is good for their health.

While the landscape and architecture of Goblins has echoes of Tolkien, and it's style and comic tone has resounding echoes of Terry Pratchett, the wit and imagination is all Reeve. The world-building in Goblins is first rate. With a minimum of fuss and verbiage, Reeve is able to create a rich, interesting world peopled (creatured?) with cloud maidens, twiglings, boglins, and giants that get smaller as they get older. I compared Reeve to Pratchett in terms of humor but what both share is a distinctly British form of humor that revolves around the subversion of anything or anyone that seems overly proud, serious or powerful; the self-important and mighty typically find themselves humbled or embarrassed by common sense, the unavoidable facts of life, and bureaucratic inflexibility. Think of it as the revenge of middle-class values. It's a comic philosophy that seems in tune with thoroughly British concepts like "muddling through" and "the Dunkirk spirit." It's also the perfect form of humor for "a nation of shopkeepers."In contrast, American humor shows the high and mighty being flattened by anarchic proletarian violence: think the Three Stooges and Adam Sandler.

Goblins is the first in a projected trilogy, and I'll be there for each one of them. The only thing I ask for are some maps. I want a map of Clovenstone. Maps, please.

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