Monday, October 8, 2018

Book of the Week: THE ASSASSINATION OF BRANGWAIN SPURGE by M.T. Anderson


First Paragraph(s): From the Desk of Lord Ysoret Clivers The Royal Order of the Clean Hand Realm of Elfland
My Dear Friend,
You'll never believe who I shot out of a crossbow today. Old Weedy Spurge from school--"the Weed."
We shot him into the dark heart of the kingdom of the goblins around noon.
Funny thing. I hadn't given the Weed a thought for ages and ages. At school, he was a bit of a drip. You remember. Shrimpy little chap. Arms wobbly like kelp. Fishy sort of face. Terrible at the joust. Awful at hunting, too. Always getting bit by the elf-hounds. Frightened all the time. He walked around with his head hunched down on that scrawny little neck like he was about to be punched. Absolutely weedy, and named "Spurge," which is a weed. Hence, just called "the Weed," as you remember. And I didn't think about him for thirty years.
Well, imagine my gobsmacked surprise when one of the king's ministers told me they needed a historian to visit the goblin court of Ghorg the Evil One. Gave me a list to chose from. And there was his name, three down: Brangwain Spurge.

I've got a fun one for you this week, Esteemed Reader. Did you know "Esteemed Reader" would be a dire insult in goblin culture? It totally would. A compliment would be to address you as "Despised Illiterate." Boom. I'm totally woke to goblin life and I'm going to hit you with some mad knowledge this post. 

M.T. Anderson will be here on Wednesday to face The 7 Questions and you know that's going to be awesome, so make sure you come back for that. I was a big fan of his YA dystopian novel, Feed, and when I first read the description of The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, I was expecting something similar, but with fantasy elements.

That's not what this book is, at all, and it's a pleasure to discover a skilled writer capable of successfully telling a very different type of story while still making it feel like an M.T. Anderson novel. My favorite writers excel in multiple genres and I hope to do so one day myself (but first I'd have to excel in a single genre, ha, ha--see, goblin compliments to myself cause I'm woke).

This is one book where I'd recommend reading the paper edition rather an ebook, which is what I did, and the ARC formatting was not well done. I assume the official ebook is better put together, but really, you're going to want to hold this one in your hands. The wonderful illustrations by Eugene Yelchin do a lot of the storytelling, so much so that this is in part a graphic novel.

For that reason, I'm going to include a few snippets of Mr. Yelchin's work as well as Mr. Anderson's prose throughout this review to give you a full sense of the book:




The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge is a very funny comic novel that has some political overtones, but nothing too heavy handed. And there's no direct one-to-one parallels, so don't bother trying to figure out which shelled goblin without a soul or a shred of patriotism is a metaphorical stand-in for Mitch McConnell. 

I don't know about you, Despised Illiterate, but I've had enough of politics recently (although, make sure you're registered to vote as we need everybody who likes books and thinking to vote this November). I'd prefer to focus on the issues of Elf V. Goblin: Dawn of Spurge-st. And that's mostly what Anderson does.

Brangwain Spurge is an elfin historian who's catapulted into goblin territory (probably less hassle than plane travel) to stay for a time with goblin archivist Werfel. Their hope is to improve relations between the long warring species, despite the fact that they both have pointed ears (it's a recurring joke in the book). Improving relations is their official story, anyway. More on that momentarily.




The two do their best to accommodate each other, but naturally the scholarly fellows see the world very differently:

"Why do you think it is of goblin make, if it was under the palace of the elves?"
"We think it must be from a thousand years ago when the forests were ruled by your people, before you yielded them up to us."
Werfel murmured, "Before they were taken from us, yes."
Spurge nodded. "Yes, before you lost them in fair battle."




Much of the comedy through the first act comes from Werfel showing off bits of goblin culture, with which Spurge is largely unimpressed:

I'll try to show him that goblins can be fun! Werfel thought, so during a furious thunderstom he took Spurge out on the streets to watch the children jumping from rooftop to rooftop with their elaborate metal wands, tying to catch lightning bolts.

Magister Spurge did no seem much more pleased by the solemn Museum of Eminent Skins. He did not take any interest in the discarded skins of famous goblin heroes and actors, despite all of the interesting dioramas. At the end of the tour, he did not even want to pet the Slough of Vertigrin the Wise for good luck.



During my favorite sequence, Werfel takes Spurge to a goblin opera which plays for more than twenty hours. Around hour six, Spurge sneaks off and I've been thinking about this next passage of Werfel trying to find the elf since I first read it: 

He crouched over the privy and looked down. Someone could easily crawl out the hole and jump down into the street below. Spurge must be off spying.
He stuck his head through the hole and and peered up and down the alley. At the far end of the street, there were signs for various posh businesses: an optician, a doctor, a kitchenware boutique, a maker of ladies' fine opera gloves. But no sign of anyone. 
He was furious. Spurge had betrayed his trust. When he looked up from the toilet, shifting on his knees, he saw a wealthy goblin woman draped in strings of pearls glaring at him.
"Just vomiting, madam," he apologized. "That shrieking harpy who's playing Blulinda really should not be singing a solo role." He stood up and, with dignity, left the privy.



So, do the goblin's just yell "look out below" before doing their business to the street beneath? Do the goblins below have umbrellas, or do they just accept the downpour as part of the price of living in the city? I have so many questions about goblin toilets. I've been wondering about the practicality of living in a world with such toilets for a couple weeks now. I keep thinking I'm done contemplating such juvenile matters, and then questions come creeping back into my brain at odd moments.

Alas, Spuge is a pawn in a larger game. He's been tasked with bringing a gift to the goblin king. Unbeknownst to him, the gift is actually a brilliantly described MacGuffin:

As you know, the gift we sent, the carved gemstone, is not simply an artifact of ye olden days. It is also a death-dealing device. Didn't used to be. It was just a pretty gemstone when they dug it up in Your Majesty's wading pool. But before we sent it, our crack team of wizards imbued it with the power, when activated, to open a hole in the world and destroy everything around it out of time and space and into--well, I don't know, Your Maj, because I was never frightfully good at science, but, you know, the Great Nothing or some such. Get some wizards to explain it.




Incidentally, the fellow providing this exposition as well as the exposition in the opening paragraph and throughout the book is Ysoret Clivers, Lord Spymaster, Earl of Lunesse, Order of the Clean Hand. His letters to the king are quite amusing as he and the king start out as best buds who golf together and their relationship deteriorates drastically due to Spurge's antics and unknowing failures to destroy the goblin's leader. 

This is a fun way to deliver exposition and the interplay between Ysoret and the elfin king who begins chopping off his fingers with each failure to give him a truly clean hand reminded me of the--going to date myself here--bickering PA anouncers in the movie Airplane! If you recall the tone of that comedy, or perhaps the tone of The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, that's sort of treat you're in for with The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge.

This is an absurd comedy. Laughs are the top priority and they are abundant. But if you're hoping to be convinced of a believable world of goblins and elves, this isn't that story. Me, I always loved R.A. Salvatore's The Dark Elf trilogy for that sort of nerdy fun. The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge is a different sort of nerdy fun. 

Not only is the interplay of these narrating letters between Ysoret and the king amusing on its own, it's thematically relevant. Without spoiling, our odd couple of elf and goblin are about to learn an important lesson that applies to both their kingdoms and our own as well:

"You cannot trust the wealthy and powerful."
"I thought I would be useful," wept Spurge. "I thought I could be different than I was. I thought I could be one of them."
"You were useful," said Werfel. "Buy just because you're useful to the wealthy doesn't mean they'll reward you. It just means they'll use you."



But this isn't a book about messages and politics so much as it's a book about the fun of learning the outlandish rules of a made-up world. M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin want to show their readers a good time, and in this aim they are successful.

I particluarly loved Werfel's pet, Skardebek, or Becky for short, who screeches at night. But what is Becky:

It was just Skardebek, rubbing his cheek with her tentacles.

The icthyod mewled.

Skardebek screeched and darted forward to bite the intruder. Werfel reached up and grabbed her tail just in time. 

Werfel was still busy trying to hold Skardebek back as she flapped and struggled.

Trying to imagine how Skardebek functions is fun, and that's what this book is. Just a whole lot of fun. Treat yourself, Despised Illiterate, and laugh out loud at this buddy comedy that never takes itself too seriously.

And don't miss author M.T. Anderso's interview on Wednesday. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from The Assassination of Branwain Spurge:

Skardebek fluttered softly around the room's rafters like an unsettled thought.

"You'll never hear interesting stories if you don't ask questions. And there are interesting stories everywhere. Even the most boring person has one interesting story."

"You cannot simply bang on the door of an elfin emissary while he does his business! For the elves, all aspects of life are an art. Even on the toilet, they think of nothing but beauty and elegance. Knocking on the door would be like hurling a fry-pan at a great artist painting a masterpiece of a sunset on distant hills."

"There is no reason to keep sitting here like a couple of grapefruits rotted to the shelf."

The vast plain was hairy with dead grasses.

The towering figure roared: a creature so large that a man could have bathed in the soupy spittle of its mouth and sat curled up in the chambers of its heart.

"I have so many... so many secrets I could tell Ghohg. About the kingdom of the elves. And the Order of the Clean Hand. do you know of the Order? Top secret, of course, but I know it all."
"You're disgusting," said Regibald. "Willing to sell out your own country just to save your life."
This irritated Spurge. "As it happens," he snapped, "I was going to lie to you anyway."

It seemed unfair that his one chance at being alive should end so stupidly.







STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

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