Review: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge
It’s nothing too new to say that fantasy worlds often fall into the trap of assigning entire races bad motivations and ill intent. Orcs? No good. Goblins? Sneaky little guys. From Tolkien to Gygax, we get a lot of one-dimensional portrayals of whole societies. THE ASSASSINATION OF BRANGWAIN SPURGE takes one of the oldest fantasy rivalries–elves versus goblins–and shows the trouble that comes from a colonizing spirit and rampant cultural misunderstanding.
Written by M.T. Anderson and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin, the creators of THE ASSASSINATION OF BRANGWAIN SPURGE were inspired by the long history of travelogues. Unlike existing travelogues where the only perspective is that of the ‘brave explorer’, in this novel, the culture under scrutiny is given a voice: a gentle, hopeful, unfailingly polite voice in the form of the goblin archivist Werfel.
Werfel has been chosen to show Brangwain Spurge, elfin emissary, all of the wonders of the goblin kingdom Tennebrion. He couldn’t be more excited, although he does worry that elves might be allergic to chocolate, as he’s placed several chocolates on his guest’s pillow. Werfel’s instincts for hospitality and his deep sense of duty regarding his guest are immediately put to the test upon Spurge’s arrival.
Spurge, it seems, it terrified by everything in goblin society. Where Werfel wants to show his guest art, culture, and friendship, Spurge seems determined to find mimicry, violence, and distasteful goings-on. Spurge has one duty, which is to deliver a priceless gem to the ruler of the goblins, but that proves more difficult than anticipated, as does his second secret job: spying on the goblins.
Werfel and Spurge are reluctantly forced together into a series of misadventures, and as their situation becomes more dire, the only good thing seems to be their increased understanding of one another.
The narrative is a mix of letters, Werfel’s commentary, and illustrations. Updates on Spurge’s progress on his mission are provided entirely through Eugene Yelchin’s wonderful pen-and-ink illustrations. With a medieval feel (they reminded me of Albrecht Durer’s careful woodcuts) and a sharp eye for narrative, the illustrations give the novel a distinctive tone.
Werfel’s earnest descriptions of goblin society are shown again through Spurge’s eyes, rendered grotesque and incomprehensible. Comparing and contrasting the dueling accounts make the lack of understanding painfully clear without belaboring any points or forcing readers to re-read each passage twice. This tension between the two accounts–one wordless, one written–pulls readers easily through the narrative.
Although Spurge’s POV comes only through illustrations, we get some insight into him from letters sent by his spymaster. What emerges is the portrait of an elf who was a scholarship boy in school, tormented by his peers, and is desperate now for approval. His fear inspires him to greater heights of derision and haughtiness among the goblins.
A charming and genuinely moving novel. A clever idea nicely executed, with plenty of heart and wit to go along with the satire.
The delicious irony throughout, of course, is that Spurge’s fear and obvious bewilderment could be so easily avoided if he just asked his host and listened with an open mind. It seems simple, and obvious, but a cursory glance at human history shows how often this simple solution has been avoided in favor of plunder, bloodshed, and assigning bad motivations.
I fell easily into this world, where the familiar clashes between goblins and elves were made delightfully real. Werfel is a sympathetic and heartfelt narrator, and Spurge’s reports are entertaining, giving the book a light touch even as it addresses the heavy topic of cultural misunderstanding.
THE ASSASSINATION OF BRANGWAIN SPURGE is charming and genuinely moving. A clever idea nicely executed, with plenty of heart and wit to go along with the satire.
- Recommended Age: 10+
- Language: None
- Violence: Some threats of violence, someone gets their fingers removed (offscreen)
- Sex: None