The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge
By M.T. Anderson
Illustrated by Eugene Yelchin
Hardcover, 532 pages
2018, Candlewick Press
I won a copy of this book from LibraryThing in exchange for my honest review.
Brangwain Spurge is an elfin agent, sent to spy on the goblin empire under the guise of being an emissary delivering an ancient goblin artifact. Werfel is the goblin archivist tasked to hosting the elf, and while he looks forward to sharing historical knowledge, he’s also been advised by the secret police that he will be spying on Spurge. Determined to be a gracious host despite his seedy orders, Werfel does his best to deal with his guest’s…peculiarities. What neither agent nor archivist suspect is the true plans of their superiors.
I had zero idea what to expect when I requested this book from LibraryThing – I just love M.T. Anderson and I’m a sucker for illustrated novels. This book blew my non-existent expectations out of the water!
First, let’s talk format. In case you missed it, I’ve already done a Judging post (because how could I not?!) and I’m head over heels for this entire book design. Yelchin (yes, related to Anton) knocked this out of the park and I’m happy to see Candlewick publish this hardcover with gold foil accents and debossed title. From title page to endpapers to bookplate, every page was thoughtfully designed. We need more books like this!
On top of the fantastic design, the illustrations aren’t just embellishments for the story, they tell part of it! Everything from Spurge’s point of view is told via Yelchin’s detailed illustrations. The narrative follows Werfel and his thoughts, which are often opposed by what Spurge’s images depict. It was an interesting concept and not one I’ve encountered before.
Through Spurge’s eyes, readers see a terrifying world of hideous goblins and the creatures they control. As Werfel tries to show his guest the finest entertainments goblins have to offer and provide him with the choicest meals, Spurge is focused on his mission to protect the artifact until such time as he can present it to the goblin leader (which happens to be a mysterious creature from space). Spurge reports his findings back to his homeland by going into a magical trance and transmitting his images which are printed out for his superiors to peruse.
Periodically there are letters from Lord Clivers, spymaster to the elfin king, which reveal another layer of the plot and also provide some extra humor. But the majority of the tale is told from Werfel’s perspective. I never imagined I’d identify with a goblin.
Werfel is an archivist nerd through and through. He’s so excited to talk history and compare notes and share local artifacts and customs with his visitor. He’s concerned for Spurge’s journey across the land, hoping the emissary is comfortable – meanwhile, Spurge was placed in a barrel and fired from a giant trebuchet – and all the while he is prepping the champagne fountain and wondering if elves enjoy complimentary chocolates on their pillows.
Werfel does his best to accommodate the downright rude Spurge, all the while still dreaming of sharing their historical knowledge and hoping for friendship to blossom. Werfel is nerdy, nervous and polite, but throughout the story, grows a backbone and defends his people against constant insults from Spurge. I really loved Werfel – he’s a goblin I can get behind and I totally relate to the mix of anxiety and excitement revolving around meeting new people and wanting them to become your friend. I never warmed to Spurge, though I think maybe I was supposed to by the end. He’s just such a dink! Werfel and Spurge definitely fall into the unlikely duo category and despite my dislike of Spurge, I loved their interactions.
This story, at its heart, is about understanding the differences and similarities between different nations and being open to the views of others. Trust me, I was surprised this goofy, illustrated book elf and goblin relations had some pretty clear messages to deliver.
There’s plenty of disagreement about who started the wars that drove the goblins out of the forests near the elfin kingdoms, but more poignant are the differences between the two races. Readers come to learn many of Spurge’s views of the goblin city and race in general are based on his assumptions and prejudices, rather than the reality that surrounds him.
Werfel references an old saying…
“In the end, goblins and elves were not so different, were they? Werfel thought of the old saying: Elf and goblin, we all have pointy ears. So true.”
…and it’s certainly one of the central themes of the story. (“Milliebot, you actually notice themes?” I can hear you asking. And yes, sometimes I do!)
We even gain insight through one of Lord Clivers’s letters – the general view of elves is that goblins are savage and unrefined. One such example Clivers writes about is how goblin women fight alongside their men and he describes them as strong “ugly beasts.” He then goes on to comment that elfin beauties are “bred for their delicacy to be ornaments to society” and that goblins lack nobility and chivalry because they don’t view their women the same way. Boy did that rankle my modern feminist sensibilities!
There’s a lot of talk about personal growth from Werfel. Goblins shed their skins every few years as they grow. Werfel talks about this often, as Spurge finds it disgusting and disturbing, and I’ve highlighted a few of his eloquent examples:
In reference to keeping previously shed skins – “It’s important to see who you’re growing into and who you used to be.”
“It happens every few years. It itches at first. All over your body. And you flake. But it is also a matter of pride. It means you are becoming someone new. You have grown to the point where your old shape is no longer exactly your new shape.”
It’s maybe a stretch, but you could compare it to keeping a photo album (which, I shudder to think, is probably antiquated in this day and age) or even an Instagram account and looking back at photos of yourself. They tell a story of who you were and where you’ve been.
Look, this book is just friggen’ awesome. It’s touching, it’s funny, there’s action and beautiful, detail illustrations. It’s somehow relatable, despite how far-fetched it as at times and I would love to see more from this duo and the world they created!
I most certainly recommend if:
+ You love well-designed, lavishly illustrated, beautiful-to-behold books
+ You’re looking for a middle-grade fantasy that’s fun and meaningful (whether a younger or older reader)
+ You like finding unexpected characters to identify with