The Goblin Corps by Ari Marmell
(This review appeared originally in Bull Spec #7)
All too often the fantasy genre depicts heroes joining forces against an unstoppable evil that threatens their world, and they set out on an epic journey to defeat this foe and bring peace to the world. It’s a formula that has served the fantasy genre well over the years.
However, from the very beginning, Ari Marmell’s The Goblin Corps takes that tired old cliché and turns it on its ear.
The Charnel King, a wizard who turned himself into the undead in order to gain greater power and to live forever, is defeated by the forces of good, and when he gets his revenge, the nations of the world unite against the undead lord and threaten to march on his lands. As part of his preparation for war, he creates a Demon Squad, comprised of a kobold, an orc, a troll, a gremlin, a goblin, a doppleganger, a bugbear, and an ogre.
This unlikely crew is sent on various missions to further the goals of their Dark Lord and his queen. The situations they find themselves in are amusing and gruesome all at the same time, often taking the ignoble route to solve a problem. These goblins are wicked creatures, though they do betray a sense of humanity from time to time and help each other to survive. The action is intense, the character interactions fun, and their views on the world often amuse.
However, any player of roleplaying games will quickly see this book for what it is, and that is a novelization of someone’s tabletop game. It read like the original campaign ended at the start, then the Gamemaster decided that it would be fun to run the bad guys for their next campaign. The missions the squad take are the standard fare of RPGs, such as “go find this spell component for the wizard” and “go destroy these threats to my power.” Further underscoring this point is when Marmell writes that the group has 400 feet of rope between them. When you know rope comes in 50 foot lengths (in most RPG systems), and with 8 members of the party, well, you can do the math on that one.
Don’t take this as a condemnation. Being a player of these tabletop games, it did provide a level of connection to the story. I did read most of the book expecting the author to tell me about dice rolls. Thankfully, that never happens. It only nagged in the background and didn’t ruin the story.
My only other point of contention with the book is in some of the dialog between characters. Sure, the orc is crass and the ogre speaks in halting man-speak, but that’s to be expected. What isn’t expected is a math joke (“Do you always speak in such oblique angles?”) with an answer from the kobold that doesn’t even fit with the world at all (“Call it a bad case of non-Euclidean grammar.”). This exchange completely jarred me out of the story and it took me a while to get forget this out of place conversation.
Despite these flaws, anyone looking for something different in their consumption of fantasy novels cannot go wrong here. Action, excitement, crude humor, and just plain horrible behaviors all combines into an enjoyable read that will fill the gap between denser reading material.