Some reviewers say this book is funny. I didn’t find it funny. There were hilarious moments, sure, but overall, it’s a scary, poignant tale about the brutality of war and the price of humanity, even though the main characters are nine goblin soldiers and one elf veterinarian.
The parallels with Terry Pratchett’s books are glaring. Like Pratchett, T. Kingfisher dares to expose a war through satire, but also like Pratchett, she couldn’t stay light-hearted.
On the surface, her book is a farce. Nine goblin soldiers got tossed deep behind enemy lines by magic. The heroine, their leader Sergeant Nessilka, is trying to get her unfortunate charges back home. She views herself more of a babysitter than a military commander. She doesn’t want to win the war or anything. She just wants to keep her ‘boys’ alive.
The farcical frame of this story is just a shell, containing deeper ideas and painful truths. For example, the war the goblins are fighting is a ‘just’ one: humans are pushing them out of their habitats, into extinction. But the book is more about our unwillingness (or inability) to understand the others’ culture and traditions than about who is right and who is wrong.
Before that war started, the goblins sent a delegation to the humans, to try to iron out their differences. Here is the author’s description of that delegation, and the humans’ reaction to it.
Many of the subtleties were lost on the humans. The lean bodies of war pigs in fighting trim looked feral and half-starved to human eyes, and the patterns of black earth, in which a goblin could’ve read whole volumes about tribal affiliations and clan standing, looked like streaky dirt and caked dust. Coup markers of bone and stone, denoting enemies slain and great deeds done, were seen as garbage trapped in unwashed hair. Where goblins would see high-ranking emissaries in full regalia, the humans saw a raggle-taggle band, ill-kempt and filthy, to be held in pity and contempt.
Are the goblins dirty savages because they ride war pigs? Or are the humans ignorant rubes because they see pigs and think only: ‘hams’?
This novella gives us the races, as we’re used to seeing them in countless books by other writers. The author didn’t invent anything. Her elves are beautiful and arrogant. Her goblins are dirty and smelly, with green skin and fangs. But those are just outside trappings. Inside, all of them, like all of us, are human beings, with the common human failings and the less common but still unmistakably human generosity of spirit and kindness of heart. If we stop to reevaluate our habitual hatreds, that is.
One of the most unusual characters of the book, one of its protagonists, in fact, is an elf Sings-to-Trees. He is a veterinarian. Contrary to what we know of the elves, of their penchant for beautiful objects, Sings-to-Trees doesn’t keep any beautiful objects at home. They are mostly breakable, and he uses his home as a hospital for his recuperating animal patients, who like to try their teeth and claws on anything. Regarded as odd by other elves, Sings is so full of compassion, it shines out of him like a golden star. On the other hand, like most doctors, he is a very sensible fellow, with no sentimentality. He becomes the goblins’ ally in their drive to get home. Unfortunately, there is a malevolent magic in their way, and both hostile races, goblins and elves, must cooperate if they hope to defeat it.
Kingfisher’s approach to magic is unique. She views it as a form of mental illness. Which might be right, for all I know.
A very strong book, disturbing and thought-inspiring.