BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The forces of good clash with a evil undead tyrant. This time, however, we see this classic tale from the perspective of a group of evil humanoids in the tyrant’s employ.
PROS: The author takes advantage of the unusual perspective to give us a side of the conflict infrequently seen in fantasy novels; good use of meta-textual humor; good characterization.
CONS: Sometimes we get too much “tell” rather than “show” on some aspects of the plot and characters: Point of view is also somewhat inconsistent given the premise; ending is somewhat anticlimactic.
BOTTOM LINE: Get ready to root for the bad guys to win the day. If they don’t kill each other first, that is.
After a moment’s hesitation, the bugbear loped up beside him, moving on all fours.
“Jhurpess enjoy last few weeks . Craeosh and Jhurpess going to be good friends in Demon Squad”
My other option was death, the orc reminded himself silently. I can deal with a lot if it means I don’t get dead.
“Jhurpess not even care that Craeosh not very bright. Jhurpess a tolerant bugbear”
On the other hand, death has its perks…
Being an evil overlord is not what it’s cracked up to be. You have the forces of good trying to end your reign, your own forces are sometimes unreliable, and there is always disaster waiting in the wings even if you are just trying to rule your kingdom peaceably, to say nothing of trying to conquer the world. So what do you do when you have special jobs that need doing? You can’t be everywhere at once, even if you do like to be a hands-on ruler.
Those forces of good get parties together to wreck your plans, right? Why not take a page from their playbook? What you do is you get the best from the various races in your empire and form a group to perform the tasks needed to oppose the forces of good. In other words, you form a Demon Squad.
The Goblin Corps is the story of a Demon Squad formed by Morthûl, The Charnel King, in the wake of the forces of good ruining a carefully designed magic ritual that would have given him mastery over the entire world. Morthûl is no fool, and knows that the forces of good, even in their victory, will seek to follow it up with a military attack on his kingdom of Kirol Syrreth. Such a threat needs to be opposed. And thus the Demon Squad is born.
Members of the Demon Squad include Craeosh the Orc (who is the closest thing to the leader) and Belrotha the ogre. A bugbear, troll, doppelganger, Kobold and a gremlin fill out the team, with an imp demon as trainer to get them into shape. We experience et a slice of life from each of them before they join the squad, one by one. Characterizations are well done, and for the most part, as the novel progresses, we get to see multiple sides and facets of personality from each one.
This is not to say that they aren’t a disharmonious unit with little cohesion who are almost as prone to thrash and backstab each other as they are to ravage an enemy. And while for the most part the goblin races are pretty standard bog-tropes from fantasy novels and roleplaying games, Ari Marmell (who has written for roleplaying games) knows when to throw standard tropes at the reader, and when to mix it up. For example, his version of a bugbear, in the character of Jhurpess, is a different kind of bugbear than the bugbears commonly encountered in a Dungeons and Dragons game. The Dungeon Master in me found myself thinking about how you would stat out a Kirol Syrrethian bugbear as I was reading the book.
Going in, I was expecting the novel to be a novel version of the Roleplaying game Midnight–Evil ascendant, evil as the center of the book, grim, grim all the way down. I was quite surprised that it was a relatively light-hearted book in overall text. It’s a book that tries to have fun with the concept. Bloody, savage fun. It reminded me, tangentially, of Mary Gentle’s Grunts, which had a squad of orcs as protagonists.
With that perspective in mind, for the most part, the novel works extremely well and lives up to its promise of letting us see a war between good and evil from the perspective of low level soldiers…and the evil ones at that. The humor, both in chapter titles, a few genre easter egg references and more leaven the fact that you are reading, and rooting for, a bunch of cutthroat evil humanoids. I particularly liked Gork, the kobold, perhaps because I’ve always had an interest in redeeming the little buggers beyond the status of vermin they usually have in Dungeons and Dragons games.
Marmell has a clever sense of humor and writing, and the prose is good throughout. I admit though that some of the non meta-textual humor can get repetitive; for example, beating up the Kobold does get a little repetitive, even if it is believable out of these characters. It’s when Marmell resists that urge and instead uses humor to show us new facets of the characters that works much better. When the squad gets into fights, the text really shines as we get to see what tactics and strategy (or lack thereof) a squad of evil humanoids with little in common with each other would actually use. These scenes in particular are a glorious mess of chaotic fun. Rooting for the bad guys to take down a paragon of Light was never so much a guilty pleasure.
However, a couple of things gnawed at me as I read the book. While it mostly stays with the point of view of the members of the demon squad, that point of view restriction is sometimes lifted beyond the prologue that sets up the novel. We get some views from the side of Good (in the personage of King Dororam and his wizard Ananias DuMark), as well as Morthûl and his inner circle. While I don’t have an objection to this, I might have liked Marmell to rise to the challenge of not having to do so if he could have possibly managed it, and give an unalloyed “grunt level” view of the War between Morthûl and King Dororam.
This dovetails with the other thing that disagreed with me most about the book. Even given the fact that we break POV away from the Demon Squad now and again, some key events are told, not seen, especially at the end of the book, leading to something of an anticlimax. I think I would have accepted that a little more if the author didn’t already establish breaking point of view away from the Demon Squad. In addition, there is a character death (what, you didn’t think any of these characters were going to die? I was only in suspense as to how many and which ones) that takes place offscreen. I thought that was more than a bit of a cheat, even given when it takes place in the timeline of the narrative.
Upon reflection, I did enjoy the book, even given the faults.
So who else would like this book? First of all, fans of Marmell’s Corvis Rebaine duology will find a lot of familiar ground–villains and monsters as protagonists, embedded in a well described and rich secondary world replete with such creatures and settings. Have another helping. Gamers, too, will like this novel, especially fans of games like Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder. And in general epic and secondary fantasy fans who want to try something different, and see the side of the Evil Empire, with enough levity and crude humor to make it worth your while, will enjoy The Goblin Corps.