Tuesday, July 5, 2011

This Is a Quest Fantasy Lovers Will Want to Take

Genre fiction is all about tropes, conventions, common ways of doing things that stretch from story to story. Read a little in the field, and you quickly realize that trying to nullify the ancient prophesy by killing all the village's children just won't work and that your imagination hasn't produced that groaning from the attic. Constant repetition has worn some such standards down to the nub, so it's no wonder that authors like to overturn them as much as honor them. Enter Jim C. Hines' Goblin Quest, a fantasy novel that reworks the old story of a group of adventurers plumbing the depths of dangerous caverns for loot -- and tells it from a monster's perspective.

One couldn't quite call Jig's life inside the mountain "good" even prior to meeting the adventurers. Scrawny and myopic, the tiny goblin often ended up the butt of cruel jokes and crueler beatings, his only friend an equally small fire spider named Smudge. Indeed, that's how the whole debacle unfolded, with the brutish Porak forcing Jig to follow in front of his patrol as bait. And it worked, sort of. Before he knew it, Jig ended up the captive of a pompous prince, his mentally unstable wizard brother, a cartography-obsessed dwarf and a sullen elfin thief. (Fortunately, though, Porak became fodder for the carrion worms, which lifted Jig's mood a bit.) The motley crew wants Ellnorein's Rod of Creation, an artifact reputedly hidden in the mountain's lowermost parts, and they seem convinced that the goblin can lead them to it. Never mind that Jig has never ventured past the hobgoblins' lair or the pool of the poisonous lizard-fish. If he wants to survive, he'll have to bring the band through the treacherous abode of the Necromancer to the guardian of the Rod, a scaly terror named Straum.

Hines could've settled for a simple inversion, making the so-called heroes bad and the mountain-bound monsters misunderstood. At first, that appears to be his tack. The adventurers are a squabbling bunch, their mission crosscut with conflicting motivations and outright hypocrisy. Meanwhile, Jig only wants to make his way home, enjoy a good meal, and have a long sleep. Hardly monstrous expectations. Yet Hines gradually rounds out his characters, revealing hidden parts of their personalities that transform them into something greater than caricatures. The prince owes his selfish pride to more than mere moral laxity, and Jig eventually comprehends that some the derision aimed at his species comes as much from their foolish habits as pointless prejudice. A last-minute upturning of the plot is a true treat. Some of the prose may feel unpolished, and Hines crowbars in a rough resolution or two. But in the end, this is a Quest fantasy aficionados will want to take.

(Picture: CC 2008 By  JoesSistah; Hat Tip: Writing Excuses)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I love Jim Heines Princess books, and will have to check this one out. He does indeed excel at taking typical fantasy inversions--and then humanize them in marvelously unexpected ways.

If you want to see this done horribly (please don't), check out Grunts. I couldn't even get halfway through, and I read books swiftly and eagerly.

On the other hand, the webcomic Goblins seems to be quite in the same spirit, and is available for free. Some jokes might not be as funny, though, if you haven't played the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons.

In any case, so glad you enjoyed Heines. He is a treat.

Loren Eaton said...

Quest is a lot of fun. Now, it's a light read, so don't expect a lot of profundity. But I found it quite enjoyable. There's some roleplaying allusions in it, too, I think. But I've never really gotten into that scene, so I didn't mention it in the review.