Ari Marmell’s third original novel, the Pyr-published The Goblin Corps, is an unapologetic fantasy of the best kind. The Goblin Corps is a grand scale sword & sorcery adventure, the likes of which are rarely seen anymore. An Abercrombian take on well-worn fantasy tropes with more than a tad of humor, this is a novel singly meant to entertain. And it does just that. At times equally gruesome, humorous, outlandish and thrilling, The Goblin Corps can be summed up in a word: awesome. Or at least, that’s how I imagine most dedicated fantasy fans will see it.
Morthûl, the dreaded Charnel King, has failed.
Centuries of plotting from the heart of the Iron Keep, deep within the dark lands of Kirol Syrreth - all for naught. Foiled at the last by the bumbling efforts of a laughable band of so-called heroes, brainless and overmuscled cretins without sense enough to recognize a hopeless cause when they take it on. Machinations developed over generations, schemes intended to deliver the world into the Dark Lord’s hands, now are devastated beyond salvation. But the so-called forces of Ligth have paid for their meddling with the life of Princess Amalia, the only child of the royal family of Shauntille.
Now, as winter solidifies its icy grip on the passes of the Brimstone Mountains, disturbing news has reached the court of Morthûl. King Dororam, enraged by the murder of his only child - and accompanied by that same group of delusional upstart “heroes” - is assembling all the Allied Kingdoms, fielding an army unlike any seen before. The legions of Kirol Syrreth muster to meet the attack that is sure to come as soon as the snows have melted from the mountain paths, but their numbers are sorely depleted. Still, after uncounted centuries of survival, the Dark Lord isn’t about to go down without a fight, particularly in battle against a mortal! No, the Charnel King still has a few tricks up his putrid and tattered sleeves, and the only thing that can defeat him now may just be the inhuman soldiers on whom he’s pinned his last hopes.
Welcome to the Goblin Corps. May the best man lose.
This is a book that took me by surprise - I simply wasn’t expecting to be taken in this type of story and at first glance utterly unlikeable characters. My prejudice only helped Marmell show me how little I know myself. I loved it. Marmell takes the most blatant fantasy tropes, the stuff any fan dreads will be used as proof of how ‘lame’ or ‘childish’ fantasy is - you know the type: orcs, goblins, trolls, wizards and haughty Dark Lords - and reminds us how fun they can be.
The Goblin Corps’ premise bears much resemblance to that of, say, the The Lord of the Ring. But backwards. Instead of being viewed from the perspective of the questing heroes, this is the tale of the war against the Dark Lord from the view point of the least scrupulous of his minions. At the same time Marmell shows us how truly little difference there is between the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys. At the end of the day, we as readers will go for whoever the writer incites us to go for (to a degree), and in this case it’s the no-good, despicable band of assorted goblins that make up the Demond Squad.
Like Abercrombie, Marmell puts his own twist on fantasy tropes, and like Martin he is unforgiving with the lives of his characters, but though his narrative decisions resemble these two’s somewhat, at the end of the day it’s difficult to peg his writing down as similar to either of them. More than anything, the underlaying sardonic tone of his writing is closer to Sam Sykes’ style as are the band of bickering characters. Craeosh, Katim, Gork, Gimmol, Feizill and Belrotha are a varied and hilarious bunch, and their chemistry is, I think, the main drive and base of the narrative.
To be clear, The Goblin Corps is no perfect book, but for the simple aims Marmell seems to have to set out for himself - namely revisiting familiar tropes with a grittier, modern outlook and a good dose of irony - he clearly achieves his goal. Sure, the plot meanders a bit at times and the book could have therefore done with a bit of condensing, but the stylistically effective prose, witty dialogue and vibrant action make, on the whole, for some highly pleasurable reading. Highly recommended, but with a slight caveat: this is a violent, gory and sarcastic novel, often for no particular reason. Take that as you will. The Goblin Corps is out now in the US with no foreseeable UK publication date.
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Reading Age: 15 and up
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