Reviews: Goblins by Philip Reeve
Goblins by Philip Reeve (Scholastic, expected U.S. publication August 27th, 2013)
Note: An advanced reader copy was provided by the publisher.
Any reader who has perused fantasy is bound to have encountered goblins at some time. They are one of fantasy’s most commonplace small time villains. They feature in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, often show up in fantasy games and fantasy movies and the most common vision of goblins is one of oddly shaped, often ugly critters with a penchant for fighting and raiding and squabbling. They often land on the pages of fantasy world fiction with hardly a thought. They’re the pawns on the black side of the chessboard– the henchmen for the big villains . Now sometimes a book comes along to challenge that notion–as did Goblin Secrets by William Alexander, where a goblin is quite another thing altogether. Philip Reeve’s book doesn’t do this. It takes the cliched image of goblins full force . . . and runs with it. The result is a sort of fractured Dungeons and Dragons game that turns out to be a very entertaining story.
For my adult readers, picture Jim Hines’ Jig the Goblin series only written for a middle grade audience and you’ve got an idea of what to expect.
In the ancient ruins of Clovenstone, the goblins live in their run down towers, fighting and raiding and stealing treasures. Skarper is an unusually thoughtful goblin (since most goblins don’t progress beyond bashing each other over the head, this isn’t hard) whose brains and interest in reading and maps lands him in a whole heap of trouble. In fact, it very nearly gets him killed–and that’s only the beginning of the story. A young hero looking for adventure (preferably one without cheese), some semi-dark minions of the Lych Lord, a pragmatic princess and a host of other creatures all populate this richly imagined world. Adventure awaits around every corner here . . . but it’s not always the one that our heroes would expect.
Philip Reeve is certainly no slouch when it comes to deft writing. This tale comes packed with a great opening that manages to conjure the feeling of an aging fantasy land, or setting for gamers on a Dungeons and Dragons style quest–and then quite happily catapults readers expectations out the window. While younger readers may not be familiar with D&D campaigns, they likely are familiar with the online games full of quests and monsters and every sort of fantasy trope imaginable. Philip Reeve taps into this beautifully. There are brilliant moments where the writing manages to be both grand and funny in the same passage “she remembered how, when the tide was high, the foam came feathering out of blowholes in the cliff tops with a great Ker-chooof! and the spray drifted across the harbor, filled with rainbows. That was how the town had got its name: Porthstrewy, which meant sneeze harbor in the olden tongue.” And my particular favorite is the “Bumwipe Heaps”. Which is what the goblins term the pile of books and scrolls that have accumulated over the years. Reeve doesn’t just supply his world with fantasy creatures, but gives them a history and an origin that captures the reader and pulls them in.
Rather than an overtly comic story where everything is done with slapstick and over the top comedy, here the general tone is more serious, with the humor gently woven in. In some ways, the author’s work reminds me of Terry Pratchett (though without the footnotes). Despite the humor, there are some serious themes here about the price of power and what things truly count as treasure. A magical adventure that should appeal to boys and girls, especially those already familiar with fantasy tropes and traditional stories. This may not appeal to those who prefer more in-depth character exploration and growth as the author does tend to keep the characters at arm’s length, but this appears to be intentional in the design of the story. An excellent lighthearted middle-grade fantasy.
My small concerns are actually with the book’s title and cover art. While it’s not a terrible title, the single word is fairly vague and generic–sort of like calling a book “Elves” or “Giants” (of course, if this is Philip Reeve’s general idea for a title progression in a series of books, I may take back my complaint). I just don’t feel like the title is distinctive enough, nor does it really capture anything of the tone of the book. Without a unique wording, it becomes harder to remember and locate the title, though I hardly think this will sink the book. As to covers, I’m a bit mixed on the art. This novel was released in Britain last year with this cover:
The Brit cover captures the humor of the book, but may oversell the comedy aspect for a story that’s also pretty thoughtful. The U.S. cover may go overboard in the other direction. While it gives us a great depiction of our two main protagonists, the story comes across as more dramatic adventure than comic. Both covers have their appeal, but I’m not certain either quite nails the tone.
Expected Publication Date: August 2013
Recommended for grades 4 and up.