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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Goblin Corps - Ari Marmell

Ari Marmell's most recent novel from Pyr (at least for a few more weeks) is predicated on the notion of the 'bad guys' as heroes.  This is not Joe Abercrombie's morally gray characters, or Stephan R. Donaldson's antihero.  Instead, Marmell takes the stereotypical villains of D&D fantasy -- liches, demons, orcs, goblins, trolls, and ogres -- and makes them the heroes in a war against the righteous.  The Goblin Corps ends up as a hilarious and subversive novel that struggles a bit to engage the reader beyond the absurd fun of well drawn set pieces.

Morthul, the dreaded Charnel King, has failed.  Centuries of plotting from the heart of the Iron Keep was fiuked at the last by the bumbling efforts of a laughable band of heroes, led by the half-elven wizard Ananias DuMark.  When news reaches Morthul that the Allied Kingdoms are assembling a counterattacking army unlike any seen before, he sets a plan in motion to secure his future.  The lynchpin to that plan is a Demon Squad -- the best and "brightest" that Morthul's own army has to offer.  Consisting of a few fighters, a mage, a rogue or two, and a shapeshifter, the Demon Squad exhibits all the classic characteristics of the ideal D&D party.

Structurally, the novel reflects this same homage to the D&D model.  Goblin Corps is divided into a dozen long to very long chapters, each of which represents what amounts to a new adventure for the party.  These adventures are comparable to a night of D&D and the novel at large consists of an entire campaign.  In that regard, Marmell's novel is best read a chapter at a time as each offers some resolution and a lead-in to the next.  For someone who tends to read 200 pages in a sitting, I found it to be somewhat labor intensive as there's not a natural story arc with tension building to a grand conclusion.

Instead the focus is on the characters and the clever dialogue that goes between them.  If this is sounding a little bit like my review of Sam Sykes's debut novel Tome of the Undergates, I'm not surprised, because the two novels are very similar in their tone.  Marmell is having fun with Goblin Corps and it's transferred to his reader in smirks, snickers, and outright laughter as the bumbling Demon Squad goes about its nefarious business.  Occasionally, the novel bogs down in the running gag, sacrificing both pace and storytelling to accomplish the punchline.  Taken in the right mood and frame of mind, these gaffs are ignorable, and the black, slapstick, and pun laden humor shines.

My major complaint about the novel, beyond the minor niggles mentioned thus far, is that Goblin Corps is just too long.  Clocking in around 550 pages, with chapters as long as 50 pages, the novel just doesn't have enough under the hood to sustain itself.  By the time I got to the main story arc, which isn't for several hundred pages, I found myself counting chapters to the end.  Don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed almost all of it, but I would be recommending it with much higher praise if Marmell had tightened things up a bit.  I don't see a reason why a few of the "episodes" couldn't have been pruned, or some of the setup chapters shortened, to accomplish a better paced novel.

As far as comedic novels go, Goblin Corps is one of the better ones I've read in recent years.  It has a great deal of charm, and even the blackest member of the Demon Squad finds a special place in the reader's heart by the time that final page is turned.  This is the first novel I've read from Marmell, but it certainly won't be last.  I've got a copy of The Conqueror's Shadow in my office, and I'm looking forward to acquiring his newest novel from Pyr, Thief's Convenant.

The final word on Goblin Corps?  It's the perfect follow up to something like Malazan Book of the Fallen's (Erikson) grim outlook or Little, Big's (Crowley) dense undertones.

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At January 1, 2012 at 7:22 PM , Blogger RobB said...

I can get your point about tightening things up a bit, but for me, the mostly breakneck pace sort of eliminated any of those issues.

I had a LOT of fun reading this book. I think Marmell writes along the lines of something you mentioned in another review - "Books published because of Scott Lynch" or some such thing.

At January 3, 2012 at 6:23 AM , Blogger Justin said...

I had a lot of fun with it too, at least with each chapter. Just didn't quite all tie together as well as it could have, for me.

At January 3, 2012 at 5:10 PM , Blogger Jordan said...

I put it aside after 150 pgs or so because the story wasn't hooking me. It was funny... but unimportant. I'll probably finish it one day when I can't think of anything else to read.


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