I expect I won’t make friends with this review of 2013’s Nine Goblins. However, I can do no other, thanks to a minor quirk of mine. I discovered this quirk when rereading Matt Ruff’s Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy. At some point when I wasn’t paying attention, comedic genocide just stopped working for me. This is a shame because so much fantasy and SF depends on genocide as positive plot element. This trifling oddity of taste must have robbed me of hours of morally equivocal entertainment.
It is very clear that Kingfisher believes what is being done to the goblins is wrong. Nevertheless, Kingfisher is aiming at humour in Nine Goblins. She may well have succeeded for the majority of her readers, but, thanks to my quirk, she did not succeed with me.
Pity the poor goblins, whose adaptive abilities cannot compensate for their inability to productively organize resistance against the encroaching humans and their elven allies. On the verge of being pushed into the ocean, the goblins have finally stumbled into open war with the human settlers. Thanks to the peculiarities of goblin society (the fact that they are as canny as the Scots, and as prudent as the Helvetii), the only question seems to be whether the last goblin will be run through by a human soldier or blown to pieces by some cunning bit of goblin pyrotechnics.
It’s good this is a comedy because otherwise this story of an entire race haplessly flailing its way into extinction would be somewhat depressing.
Nessilka is a sergeant in the 19th Infantry AKA, the Whinin’ Niners. She is a competent non-com handicapped by the fact all of the goblin officers are idiots and the rank and file aren’t much better. Surviving to retire is almost certainly not in the cards, but she does her best to shepherd her collection of wacky eccentrics through as many battles as she can.
Matters take an unexpected turn when Nessilka leads a charge against an enemy wizard. This is always a foolish move. Wizards may differ in how they manifest power, but they are alike in that they are all (at best) marginally sane and all extremely dangerous. The wizard uses magic to flee the battlefield; because he has been rushed, he inadvertently takes nine goblins from the 19th with him . They land deep into human, which is to say, enemy, territory.
The goblins cannot stay where they are; human farmers are guaranteed to be unsympathetic. The front, and safety, is fifty miles away.There are at least two routes that would take them back into goblin territory: the direct one leads across open fields, where they will be easily spotted, and the other, a far more circuitous path, leads through a forest. A forest the goblins only slowly realize has all the characteristics of an elven forest.
The good news is there’s only one elf in this forest and he’s a kind hearted veterinarian who has no interest in killing goblins (or anything, really). The bad news is that the elf’s kindliness doesn’t matter, because there’s something Very Bad in a nearby village. This Big Bad has already killed most of the living creatures around that village. The local authorities haven’t noticed the anomaly—yet—but when they do, a group of wandering goblins will make very handy scapegoats.
If the Thing in the village doesn’t get the goblins first.
The goblin race finds itself in a situation that should be familiar one to any readers who know a modicum of human history. They will mostly likely be familiar with this example but there are many (too many) other such histories of invasion, conquest, and extinction (by genoicide or assimilation). Consider the losses of the Celts, my ancestors. Basically it sucks to find oneself next door to expansionist cultures who enjoy a significant advantage in social organization, military capability, and/or technology.
The odd thing is that, even though this is a novel about the inexorable extermination of one race by another, there’s a distinct lack of overtly bad people in this book. The goblin soldiers just want to survive a while longer (and always refrain from killing if they can, even when their victim is a wizard ); the human Rangers are willing to consider evidence before acting; the elf just wants to play Pointy Eared James Herriott in the Woods; and the townsfolk … well, the townsfolk are mostly dead but I am sure they’d have turned out to be Just Plain Folks. Even the Big Bad is, when you get down it, damaged goods, dangerous but pitiful, not Sauron plotting in his tower.
To quote Terry Pratchett, who I suspect is an influence on the author,
There are hardly any excesses of the most crazed psychopath that cannot easily be duplicated by a normal kindly family man who just comes in to work every day and has a job to do.
The implied hope offered by the novel is that elf, human, and goblin have learned to work together in this one instance; perhaps this example will go viral and the factions will decide to step back and end the war. To the extent that history in secondary worlds mirrors actual human history, I wouldn’t bet a bent brass sestertius on that happening. If this is a series, the author might have to go for what I call the Why I Have Relatives in the Frickin’ Outer Hebrides option, which is for the goblins to learn to build boats so they can look for some horrible little rock so awful nobody will take it from them .
Crimes against humanoidery aside, the novel itself isn’t too bad. It’s uneven at the beginning, when the author is trying very hard—too hard—to be funny and wacky, but as once the story stops being about Those Cray-Cray Goblins in general and starts being about a specific group of individuals in desperate straits, the story finds its feet. Once isolated in human territory, goblins are free to drop the hilarious self-sabotaging eccentricities and start demonstrating some of that intelligence and adaptability that once let them spread across a continent.
Unfortunately, I just can’t get by the whole genocide thing, although I will admit it’s a pleasant change (for a speculative fiction story at least) to see it from the victims’ point of view and not the victors. It would be even better if the goblins were not so clearly contributing to their own extermination with their wacky, doomed ways. Other readers will likely differ from me in this matter; those readers will find the novel for sale here.
1: Wizards always being chaotic dangerous, it’s hard to make a case for not killing them out hand.
2: Or the Nova Scotia option, which is to do to another group what was done to them.