FORMAT/INFO: The Goblin Corps is 552 pages long divided over a Prologue, eleven numbered/titled chapters, and an Epilogue. Narration is in the third-person omniscient via numerous characters including the seven members of the Demon Squad, the Charnel King Morthûl, his lieutenant Vigo Havarren, Ananias DuMark, King Dororam, etc. The Goblin Corps works well as a standalone novel, coming to a satisfying stopping point, but there is room for a sequel. July 2011 marks the North American Trade Paperback publication of The Goblin Corps via Pyr. Cover art is provided by Lucas Graciano.
ANALYSIS: Ari Marmell’s The Conqueror’s Shadow really took me by surprise when it came out in 2010, establishing itself as one of the year’s most entertaining fantasy novels. Unfortunately, the sequel — The Warlord’s Legacy — was a major disappointment. As a result, I was on the fence regarding the author’s new novel, The Goblin Corps, before I eventually decided to give the book a chance.
To my relief, The Goblin Corps possesses the same elements that made The Conqueror’s Shadow so much fun to read. This includes cleverly subverted fantasy tropes — villains who are more likeable than the heroes, a wolf-like troll, a war against the Dark Lord that doesn’t go quite as planned, etc. — comical David Eddings-like humor, and Joe Abercrombie’s kick-ass grittiness.
At the same time, The Goblin Corps offers a couple of improvements that makes the book even more rewarding and fun to read than The Conqueror’s Shadow. The first is Ari Marmell’s writing, which continues to show improvement, particularly the author’s prose:
The threadbare layer of carpeting over the floor was worn as full of holes as an old sock, and whatever color it might once have boasted had long been trampled into an unassuming, colorless gray. A single chair, its cushion torn and hemorrhaging stuffing, its wooden frame bending beneath the years, sulked in the corner. The bed frame, in equal disrepair and clearly not on speaking terms with the chair, would have long since collapsed if it hadn’t been propped against the wall.
Secondly, the author doesn’t pull any punches in The Goblin Corps. One complaint I had about The Conqueror’s Shadow was the odd clash of PG-13 sensibilities and R-rated violence. In The Goblin Corps, the Demon Squad freely curse — they are villains after all; violence is unrestrained and gruesomely explicit, venturing at times into disturbing and horrific territory; and the body count is deliciously high, even including some of the main characters. In short, apart from the novel’s PG-13 humor, The Goblin Corps embraces its dark side — and thrives because of it.
Plot-wise, The Goblin Corps revolves around a new Demon Squad assembled to serve King Morthûl in preparation for the upcoming war against the Allied Kingdoms. This new Demon Squad includes Cræosh, an orc warrior; the bugbear Jhurpess; Gork, a kobold who specializes in pickpocketing; T’chakatimlamitilnog — “Katim” for short — a troll from the House of Ru; a gremlin named Gimmol Phicereune; the doppleganger Omb Fezeill; Belrotha, an ogre and governess of Itho; and Shreckt, a 20-inch tall gargoyle who acts as the squad’s drill sergeant.
Experiencing the Squad’s interactions with one another based on their physical/racial differences and contrasting personalities — Cræosh’s belligerence and vulgarity, Gork’s short stature, Belrotha’s dimwittedness, Jhurpess speaking in the third person (“Jhurpess hungry!”), etc. — is easily a highlight of the novel. That and the incessant banter; seeing how certain relationships play out (Gork’s animosity for Fezeill, the friendship that develops between Gimmol and Belrotha, the tension between Cræosh and Katim because Katim wants to kill the orc to serve her in the afterlife), interesting subplots (Gimmol’s hidden talent, Vigo Havarren’s relationship to Morthûl, Morthûl’s secret plan) and the Demon Squad’s numerous (mis)adventures — training in the frozen Steppes, running errands for Queen Anne, uncovering a spy, fulfilling Morthûl’s mission — which forces them to face a wide variety of dangerous enemies including yetis, worm-creatures, troglodytes, nagas, undead/ghosts, murderous ambulatory trees, “a huge fu**ing hard-shelled swamptopus”, and much more.
From a negative standpoint, The Goblin Corps suffers from many of the same issues found in The Conqueror’s Shadow and The Warlord’s Legacy including shallow characterization, unexplored themes, and straightforward plotting. However, since it is the novel’s intent to entertain, not challenge intellectually, these drawbacks are hardly noticeable. Especially since the book never takes itself seriously. Regarding The Goblin Corps specifically, some of the jokes and humor starts to become tiresome in the second half of the novel, while it seemed odd that the book was called “The Goblin Corps” even though the Demon Squad is never referred to by that title.
CONCLUSION: As much as I enjoyed reading The Conqueror’s Shadow by Ari Marmell, The Warlord’s Legacy left a bad taste in my mouth, and because of that, I almost passed on The Goblin Corps. That would have been a huge mistake. As good as The Conqueror’s Shadow was, The Goblin Corps is better. Better written, funnier, more fulfilling, and twice as entertaining. Basically, The Goblin Corps is must-read material for anyone who is a fan of Joe Abercrombie and likes seeing fantasy tropes viciously subverted. Don’t let the Abercrombie comparisons fool you either. Ari has his own style which he is perfecting, and if he can continue writing books like The Conqueror’s Shadow and The Goblin Corps, then I wouldn’t be surprised if exciting new fantasy authors were one day compared to Ari Marmell…