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Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Robert Hewitt Wolfe's THE GOBLIN CROWN Continues a Long Standing Fantasy Tradition


It is a sign of the times that it took me three years to discover The Goblin Crown by Robert Hewitt Wolfe. I'd like to put most of the blame on the fact that we live in an era where there is more genre content being produced in a year than can be easily consumed in a lifetime and a good deal of that content is self-published, Kickstarted, or patron supported. I'd like that to be where I place the blame, but it was more likely due to the fact that I am in the process of earning my Ph.D. and don't have as much time to delve into the Science Fiction and Fantasy mid-list and new author stacks as I used to have.

While Robert Hewitt Wolfe's is an accomplished television writer whose credits range from Star Trek: The Next Generation to Elementary and include The Dresden Files (which gives him significant geek cred) and the underappreciated superhero show Alphas. The vast majority of Wolfe's television writing has been genre work, so it is not surprising that his first novel The Goblin Crown would be a Fantasy novel that is heavily steeped in genre tropes.

The Goblin Crown is the first volume of a series of (at least) three books in which Wolfe tells the tales of three high school students as they are transported into a fantasy realm. These teenagers are  the socially awkward Billy Smith, the angsty Lexi Aquino, and the prototypical quarterback Kurt Novac. These students must find a way to work together and combine their unique talents to help save the day for a desperate and outnumbered people, who are on the verge of extinction as war ravages the realms. These people are currently being rallied by a charismatic leader in a last desperate push for survival.

The twist? It is the Goblins who need saving from a massive human army. Goblin prophecy states that when Goblins most need them, a king from another world will arrive to save them and one of these young adventurers is destined to be that king.

What Works? 


Wolfe's talents as a writer are quickly apparent as he doesn't hesitate to make the main antagonist of this volume as psychologically complex and compelling as any of the protagonists. Wolfe's use of point of view characters is spot on for maximum emotional effect. We allowed to see into the mind of a hopeful Goblin named Hop who has quested into the depths of Mother Mountain to see if a new Goblin King has been sent. We become acutely aware of the worries and stresses of young Billy and Lexi as they adapt to this new world. Most importantly we get to experience the torment of General Sawtooth who wants to preserve his people, even as he knows he may have been misled by The Dark Lady and that his people may be doomed. The characters are compelling and have clear motivations that set up the conflict to come.

As mentioned earlier, Wolfe's basic conceit is that our young protagonists have been transported into another world. This is a common trope in fantasy and science fiction that is some variation of the "Trapped in Another World" trope and the "Down the Rabbit Hole" trope. While this is a common trope, it is one that has been used to great success by to many authors to list here, but that list includes like Edgar Rice Burroughs, L. Sprague de Camp, Michael Moorcock, and Andre Norton. For the trope to be successful, the conceit must be delivered quick and painlessly. The author must not make the reader wait too long before being transported into the magic realm and God forbid the author spend too much time describing the how and why the transportation works. Best to pull the veil away in a rapid and compelling fashion.

Let's examine a couple of archetypical examples of the genre.

In "Solomon's Stone," author Sprague de Camp transports his protagonist from our world into the Astral Plane. The protagonist, Prosper Nash, is transported by the will of a demon he and his friends summoned at an evening's dinner party.
Prosper Nash felt a tremendous shock, as if a destroyer had dropped a depth bomb on him. While his mind strove to keep a grip on his body, he could feel that body being pulled out of his mental clutches--going--going--gone!

He was moving with great speed--or falling; it was like an express-elevator plunge, only more so...

Keep your head, J. Prosper. Let's take a look at this astral body of ours first.
-- L. Sprague de Camp "Solomon's Stone" Unknown Worlds vol. 6 no. 1 (1942).

 
It's quick and too the point. Sprague de Camp gives us a little more of the "whys and wherefores" of travel beyond the veil of the mundane in his more famous Harold Shea "Enchanter" stories, but he still gets us there quickly.

There, on sheets of paper spread before him, were the logical equations, with their little horseshoes, upside-down T's, and identity signs. 
His scalp prickled a trifle as he gazed at them. But what the hell! Stand by for adventure and romance! He bent over, giving his whole attention to the formulas, trying not to focus on one spot, but to apprehend the whole:

'If P equals not-Q, Q implies not-P, which is equivalent to saying either P or Q or neither, but not both. But if not-P is not implied by not-Q,  the counter-implicative form of the proposition--'

There was nothing bu six sheets of paper. Just that, lying in two neat rows of three sheets, with perhaps half an inch between them. There should be strips of table showing between them. But there was nothing--nothing...>



It is through this focus on a logical equation that Harold Shea is transported to Midgard's border and where is adventure begins. L. Sprague de Camp's tales were inspirational to Gary Gygax as he worked on the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game, and that work in turn inspired Andre Norton's Quag Keep, which uses magical lead miniatures as the conceit (and does so much quicker than de Camp). One of the most iconic versions of the Trapped in Another World trope is Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, which sees Civil War Captain John Carter transported to the fantastic world of Barsoom through sheer force of will.

As I stood thus meditating, I turned my gaze from the landscape to the heavens where the myriad stars formed a gorgeous and fitting canopy for the wonders of the earthly scene. My situation was quickly riveted by a large red star close to the distant horizon. As I gazed upon it I felt a spell of overpowering fascination--it was Mars, the god of war, and for me, the fighting man, it had always held the power of irresistible enchantment. As I gazed at it an on that far gone night it seemed to call across the unthinkable void, to lure me to it, to draw me as a lodestone attracts a particle of iron.

My longing was beyond the power of opposition; I closed my eyes, stretched out my arms toward the god of my vocation and felt myself drawn with the suddenness of thought through the trackless immensity of space. There was an instant of extreme cold and darkness...
And...BOOM! He's on Mars. It's powerful imagery that makes no logical sense. We are given no plausible reason for the transportation to work, but it does and it is magical. This is the kind of conceit Wolfe uses in his book as Billy wills himself into another world:

What do I do? Please, please, Billy prayed silently, I have to get her out of here.

At that moment, Billy saw real light, a shining cell phone, illuminating the culvert.
Unfortunately, it was carried by the last person Billy wanted to see.

"What are you idiots doing?" It was Kurt. And he sounded furious.

Billy tried to catch his breath, push past the pain, and lift Lexi, anything to get her away from Kurt. To get Lexi to safety.

I need to get out. I need to be anyplace but here.


Then, suddenly, as if in answer to Billy's unspoken wish, the world around him shifted, warped, and bent. His stomach lurched. His ears popped. And just like that--

Billy was somewhere else.

Wolfe's description of transportation here is a combination of Burroughs and de Camp and it works nicely. You have the desperation of the scene, the compulsion to get away, and that's enough. Wolfe doesn't spend pages describing how and why the kids are transported, just that Billy wants to go and so they do. This is a fantasy novel and that comes with suspension of disbelief. When the trope used is a common one, such suspension is easy and granted eagerly. Don't spend time describing how and why, that only opens up the critical eye and limits the visceral experience. Wolfe understands this and takes us away quickly.

The reader is exposed to the world of the Hanorian Empire and Mother Mountain, which isn't given a world name in The Goblin Crown, at a nice pace. It's clear by his inclusion of Burroughs-esque use of language (and language acquisition) that Wolfe has a mapped out a compelling fantasy world. It may lack the Mythopoetic realism of Tolkien's Middle Earth, but it is logically consistent and has a history that mirrors the migrations, expansions, and invasions of real Earth history. If you don't find echoes of actual historical engagements between cultures in the backdrop of this story, you aren't paying attention. Wolfe has set up a clash of civilizations that views both societies as "human," with all the virtues and flaws that entails, which allows him to explore moral complexities.

While the majority of The Goblin Crown takes place within Goblin society, readers are given enough of human history to see a broader world. This first volume spends its time building Goblin society, and it's a rich one. We are given glimpses of the Goblin worship of  the Night Goddess and the justness of the religion's matriarch. These are not Warhammer's mindless Goblins. While they are still the untrustworthy, sneaky, and vicious Goblins we are used to, they are also a gentle, family minded, and caring people. Wolfe humanizes the Goblins without demonizing the humans and it makes the impending conflict more powerful.

One of the most developed aspects of the world, is the underlying magic system of the races. Humans, who worship the sun, have fire based magic and Goblins, who worship the Night Goddess, have cold based magic. Each system has strengths and weaknesses and both systems of magic come with the risk of madness and death if they are overused. We as readers are able to learn the intricacies of the magic system through the interactions between Lexi and a Goblin Wizard named Frost. After being transported to the new world, Lexi discovers that she is a Fire Mage and that her fiery temper may well lead her down the road to destruction.

Critique


As entertaining as The Goblin Crown is, I read it in an afternoon and ordered the sequel immediately thereafter, it isn't a perfect novel. 

Even as one of the novel's major is how well developed the majority of Wolfe's characters are, there are holes. While General Sawtooth, the major antagonist of the novel, is offered as a point of view character, Kurt Novac isn't. Given that Kurt is one of the core four characters (maybe five if you count Frost), having to rely on his conversations with other characters to reveal his inner thoughts is a bit of a letdown. We get Lexi, Billy, Hop, and Sawtooth as point of view characters. Leaving Kurt out of this list maked it seem like the author was attempting to prolong a mystery that wasn't really a mystery. Was the only reason Kurt wasn't used for point of view to leave us wondering who the Goblin King really was? Given the title of the novel, and the copy on the back cover of the book, one hopes not. Kurt needed to be explored a little more, especially since the character does evolve and shift from antagonist to one of the heroes as the book progresses.

The second area for critique is very much related to the first. The initial narrative misdirection regarding who and what the Goblin King is and how it is chosen was unecessary. While this misdirection leads to some very important narrative outcomes, and allows the point of view character to learn more about the world and their new abilities, it felt like a bit of a cheat. This is exacerbated by the fact that it's pretty obvious. It's a mystery without a mystery. It's like guessing who the murderer in a typical episode of Matlock is. We all know it's the Guest Star. What makes Matlock interesting isn't the who, but the why. Had the misdirection explored the why of the Goblin King, it would have worked. Instead, it was primarily a vehicle to move the characters from one location to another.

Final Thoughts


Setting aside these two relatively minor critiques, The Goblin Crown was a fun ride. It has a narrative and cast of characters that appeals to our inner child with a complex moral backdrop that engages our more cynical adult minds. If you love fantasy for all ages, or have a tween who is looking for a series to start, you couldn't do better than The Goblin Crown. Wolfe draws inspiration for Edgar Rice Burroughs, de Camp, Tolkien, and classic children's tales and creates a world worth exploring.

And explore this world is something I'll be doing over the next couple of weeks. I'll be writing up statistics for some of the main characters for a role playing game. I haven't decided on which game to use yet, but I'm leaning toward Genesys, Shadow of the Demon Lord (hey, he's planning a Kid Friendly Version), The Index Card RPG, or Symbaroum.

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