Review of The Goblin Corps by Ari Marmell




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    Review of The Goblin Corps by Ari Marmell

    If you distill most fantasy novels down to their core fundamentals, the essence of the genre if you will, you’re going to find that there is a common thread: Good battling against Evil. It’s a long-standing tradition in the genre, pre-dating even Tolkien and Lewis, hailing back to epic tales of Beowulf and the tales of the Greek heroes: the forces of good fight to defeat the forces of evil.


    And since modern fantasy RPGs are based upon classical epic hero tales and fantasy literature, it is not too surprising that most games, like D&D, are pre-disposed to have good heroes (the player-characters) fighting evil villains and monsters (the dungeon master). But that’s not always the case…


    Some fantasy novels are considered dark fantasy, and deal with shades of gray issues, with edgy characters and Byronic heroes, flawed by their personal tragedies and tortured by inner demons. So too, there are plenty of gamers these days playing more edgy D&D campaigns, with characters that walk in the light, but who harbor a taint of darkness within them.


    This novel is about none of the above…


    Well-known fantasy RPG writer and author Ari Marmell, a name well known to gamers for his work on piles of Dungeons & Dragons sourcebooks (both 3.5, d20, and 4E), supplements for White Wolf’s Vampire, the Masquerade, and other gaming publications, has created a fantasy novel turned inside out. Here is a story of Evil battling against the forces of Good, of a lich king’s quest for world domination, and his hand-picked squad of monsters to “assist” him in his lofty goals: The Goblin Corps!


    The Goblin Corps

    • Author: Ari Marmell
    • Cover: Lucas Graciano
    • Publisher: PYR (an imprint of Prometheus Publishing)
    • Year: 2011
    • Format: Full-sized Softbound (575 pages)
    • Price: $16.00 ($12.00 from [ame="http://www.amazon.com/Goblin-Corps-Ari-Marmell/dp/1616143770/ref=as_li_tf_mfw?&camp=212361&linkCode=wey&tag=neu rogames-20&creative=380725"]Amazon.com[/ame])


    Overview

    The Goblin Corps is a sword-and-sorcery fantasy novel written by Ari Marmell, and follows the exploits of a “demon squad” who works for a lich, King Morthűl. The demon squad is a band of specially selected goblins and monsters, with an imp taskmaster (the demon part of the Demon Squad), being trained to assist the lich-king in his plan to take control of the world. The squad consists of Crćosh (an orc), Katim (a troll), Jhurpess (a bugbear), Gork (a kobold), Gimmol (a gremlin), Fezeill (a doppelganger), and Belrotha (an ogre), who band together under threat of the lich-king’s power, and combine their talents to complete the tasks required of them for their undead overlord. The band of humanoids is formed after King Morthűl is thwarted from completing a great ritual which would have given him domination over all the other kingdoms, and is written mainly from the goblins’ perspective. The story follows them on their adventures as they are trained by the imp, borrowed by the lich-king’s sorceress-wife Queen Anne, and finally used by the undead monarch to carry out his back-up plans for world conquest.


    The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


    When I first started reading The Goblin Corps, I found myself presented with some classic D&D monstrous humanoids which, as we gamers all know, the author is utterly familiar with. Although I this book was clearly never intended to be a “D&D novel”, it’s hard not to see the similarity of the descriptions of most of the main characters as conforming to entries from the various editions of Monster Manual… but only to a point. The author created some distinct differences from D&D norm in some of the goblins, particularly with regard to personal beliefs, religion, and general outlook, which made for a refreshing take on the main characters. But sadly, some of these changes were more than superficial, which brought on what I think of as a literary “speedbump”, which jolts the reader out of the novel’s world with a resounding “hmph”.



    One of the first speedbumps I encountered was with the character of Katim, the troll. Physically, the author describes her as a gnoll – furry, dog-like face, nasty disposition. But she’s constantly referred to as a troll. She kind of sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb when you read a story that has a kobold described like a D&D kobold, an orc like an orc, a doppelganger like a doppelganger, an ogre like an ogre - but the gnoll is called a troll. It is one of those derailing moments that I tend to hate as a reader. Personally, I think that if you’re going to have a novel with classic humanoids as characters, a lich, yetis, imps, and half-elves, just own the rest of the critters in the OGL, and don’t leave a literary bump for your readers.


    Sadly, Katim is just the first of several other reader speedbumps I encountered throughout the novel. The rest had mainly to do with simple word choice, and the use of non-setting jargon coming from the mouths of the characters. Nothing knocks me out of the fantasy headspace an author is creating for me faster than having a word pop up which has no place in that world setting. A gremlin referring to “non-Euclidian geometry” automatically begs the question: this world had a philosopher named Euclid and gremlins know advanced geometry? The troll found throwing the kobold to be “cathartic” – nice word, but seems a little advanced for gnolls/trolls. And apparently, the orc had high school biology courses, telling a pack of naga that he planned on kicking their “cloaca” all over the swamp. I thought I was reading a fantasy novel here, set in a world of spells, undead, and monsters, so terms like these just derail me every time.


    As for the main characters themselves, the novelty of them being evil monstrous humanoids wears out after about 200 pages into the book. There are almost no details about the goblins backgrounds, no information on their families, no information on their tribes – except the kobold and the ogre which are recruited from their tribe, so we get a couple pages there – and no discussion of past exploits or adventures they had prior to being tapped to join the demon squad. For the most part, the main characters pop into existence at the start of the book, and what knowledge we have of them is all present history as the story unfolds.
    Without any background, the characters feel like flat personality templates, with a bunch of quirks and odd modes of speech, but no real depth. And when placed before a substantially more vivid backdrop of a fantasy world setting and its “NPCs”, the goblins in demon squad feel like mere cardboard cutouts.


    And it is that backdrop which Mr. Marmell really showed his suberb writing skills as the author of The Goblin Corps. The world felt rich and dynamic, with a complex political terrain, and a history of war and turmoil between King Morthűl and the kingdoms of humans, elves, and dwarves. The author gives the reader great descriptions of the cities, countries, and wilderness, as well as peoples and monsters which inhabit them. The Iron Keep of the lich-king and his wife’s city state of Castle Eldritch are truly creepy locales, detailed with great flair for the reader’s enjoyment.



    Even the quests which the goblins undertake are vividly described, as are the environments they march across, the dungeons they plunder, and the monsters, traps, and puzzles they overcome. The action scenes of battle are also exciting to read, and the powers and strengths of the various goblins come into play, often with synergy, in order to take down their foes or overcome obstacles.


    It was frustrating to have such vividness in a background setting, and then to have these cardboard main characters acting in front of it. One of the characters, Gimmol the gremlin, could have actually held my interest as a reader, if he had only exhibited his “really cool ability” earlier in the novel – but he spent the first half of the book hiding the fact that he was a sorcerer from his teammates, and coincidentally, the reader. So until that point, Gimmol was the butt of everyone’s abuse, deemed by the team as worthless and annoying – in fact, no one can figure out why this pathetic tiny goblin was a member of the team. When he finally does his “cool thing” and reveals his secret stash of potent spells, we’re 300 pages into the book, and frankly I just didn’t care anymore about the character.


    Personally, I could not figure out why the gremlin never revealed his powers to the squad and suffered abuse, other than to advance the plot and not to outshine the other main characters in combat situations. When Gimmol finally cuts loose, he felt like some character in a zombie apocalypse game that had an submachine gun with unlimited ammo, but just never bothered to pull it out until half the adventure series was completed. If I had been the other characters, I would have killed the little bastard on the spot.


    As for the other characters, such as King Morthűl, his necromant wife Queen Anne, and the king’s sarcastically evil henchman, Vigo Havarren, they all felt far more detailed and dynamic than the goblins, and far more memorable. King Morthűl is a real scene-stealer, as is his wife, which probably has something to do with the tidbits of knowledge which the author reveals about this hellish couple’s past. Even the good wizard who fights against the lich-king, the half-elf Anunias duMark, has some great scenes, but all of these characters are really sort of NPCs in the background – but they overshadow the demon squad in The Goblin Corps.


    To a certain extent, this book feels like it was written by a dungeon master about one of his campaigns, and all the important things to him – the NPCs, settings, quests, monsters, dungeons, and campaign plot are all written in stunning detail. On the other hand, the goblin squad – the player-characters on the other side of the screen - are boring in comparison, and lack any depth. The fact that the dedication in the front of the book “For George, Gary, Jason the Larger, and Naomi: the original Demon Squad” seems to suggest that the main characters were just that: player-characters in an evil campaign. Sure they have personality, but not particularly admirable or enjoyable, and no backgrounds or references to their past that make them feel more “real”.


    I know some would argue that you can’t make an evil character lovable or admirable, but I disagree. You can at least make evil or villainous main characters work in a story, and even be memorable - perhaps not lovable - but at least enviable for their traits. Shakespeare did it all the time with characters like Iago from “Othello”, Caliban in “The Tempest” or that main character in “that Scottish play”. Other authors, less famous than The Bard have pulled it off in modern fantasy – Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibonea was an utterly evil character, yet memorable and even sympathetic in his own way. Glen Cook’s Black Company series had huge cast of cutthroat mercenaries, yet you felt a loss when tragedy befell them. Heck, Anne Rice made vampires lovable, not to mention sexy, even though the character of Lestat was an antisocial blood-glutton and hedonist.



    As for the plotline, however, it felt fairly epic, and the last 100 to 150 pages bring all the major story elements to a close in a horrifically evil “Epilogue”. No one could accuse the author of not being able to create a diabolically intricate plot, and the novel’s ending definitely leave room for a sequel – a very evil sequel given the outcome of the story.



    But despite the story, which feels quite serious and even horrific – the endgame of an undead sorcerer seeking to conquer the world – the author sends mixed messages about the nature of the novel. Based upon the titles of the various chapters, which designed to be groaners, one might think the book was meant to be a black comedy - but I found that there was far too much horror and violence in it, and very little comedy. Yet titles like “Ogre and Under”, “A Queen Sweep”, “These aren’t the Druids You’re Looking For” suggest a levity which never really manifested itself in The Goblin Corps.



    And the goblins did plenty of slap-sticky beating up on each other - usually the larger orc and troll kicking, throwing, or pummeling the littler kobold and gremlin around - but that got tiring to read after the fourth or fifth occasion. There was tons of swearing, with the orc in particular being very fond of the “f-bomb”, and had a way of speaking which reminded me of a gamer’s interpretation of an Army drill sergeant. Interesting personality quirk, but again, it’s the same schtick repeated over and over again for 500+ pages, and it gets pretty annoying after a while.


    Imagine if Frodo, Sam and the other hobbits reached Rivendell, and instead of being joined by Gandalf, Aragorn, Boromir, Gimli, and Legolas, they were instead joined by the cast of “Jersey Shore” who proceeded to spend much of their adventuring time sniping and bitching at each other. Yea, it kinda felt like that…


    So while none of the goblins ever emerged as anything but drab, two-dimensional caricatures of monsters-turned-player-characters, King Morthűl really stands out out in my mind at the end of the book - and he was centerstage in the novel only a tiny fraction of the time. His conspiracies and plots that he masterminds are intricate and fiendish, and the goblins are merely little pawns pushed around at the end of his creepy skeletal fingers. Considering that he only gets in the book about 10-15% of the content, and yet utterly outshines the goblins who comprised about 90% of the story, it seems like the novel has some real character priority issues.


    Overall Score: 2.5 out of 5.0


    I really wanted to like The Goblin Corps, but I just couldn’t get over how annoying and dull the main characters were. After the first 150 pages, it felt like an endurance test to push through the next 200 in the middle of the book to finally get to the point where the plot moved into the endgame. Without characters to care about, turning the page was a chore, not a joy, and I felt like I was back in high school preparing some boring book for a class book report, than actually reading a novel for enjoyment. But I can’t deny that Mr. Marmell created an epic story arc in the novel, and the world setting was vivid and rich, with lots of sword-and-sorcery action. It’s just a shame the main characters never lived up to the rest of the novel’s potential.


    So until next review… I wish you Happy Gaming!

    Author’s Note: This Reviewer received a complimentary copy of the novel from which the review was written.

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    Life is the game that must be played. ~Edwin Arlington Robinson
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