The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin: Novel with two stories
Overall rating: 8/10
Quality of writing: 8/10
Concerning content (language, violence, etc.): moderate
Age level: 12 and up
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge chronicles the adventures of the titular Brangwain Spurge, a historian elf who has been sent (by giant crossbow) across the Bonecruel Mountains to the supposedly wild and barbaric goblins as an emissary and spy. While in the goblin capital of Tenebrion, he meets the goblin historian Werfel, who, despite Spurge’s constant snobbishness, generously shows him around the city (with Spurge meanwhile trying to spy out the goblins’ secrets). The book borders on slapstick with some of its humor, but nevertheless addresses highly significant themes of war and hatred between different groups (in this case, the elves and goblins, who have been fighting since before either side can remember). The book is told partially in graphic-novel format through wild and fantastical illustrations, and partially through traditional chapter-book narrative prose.
Spoilers from here on out. What makes this book unique is that the graphic-novel portions tell an entirely different story from the narrative sections— essentially two different stories (or perspectives on the same story). The images are meant to represent reports about the goblins which Spurge (a somewhat unreliable image-narrator) sends back to the elves, and because of this, they are colored by his prejudiced perspective and depict the goblin city as full of monsters and savages. On the other hand, the narrative sections where Werfel shows Spurge around Tenebrion depict the goblins as generally good-natured and remarkably cultured. This dissonance is played out in the background of the ongoing conflict between the elves and goblins, which appears increasingly senseless as the book progresses. The war ultimately results in a catastrophe brought about by the elves themselves in an effort to destroy the goblins with a magical device. In the end, the device destroys both armies, underscoring the negative effects of the two groups’ hatred for each other while also laying the foundation for a more peaceful future. The book ends on a note of hope, with Spurge realizing that the goblins and elves are actually two different branches of the same people, not two entirely different groups; Spurge and Werfel decide to share this information with both nations in an effort to reconcile them.
Brangwain Spurge initially sets out on orders from the Elf King to deliver a crystal as a gift to Ghohg, the ruler of the goblins. However, the book’s plot is later revealed to be somewhat more complex— the crystal is actually a device designed to destroy the goblin city (the same device ultimately destroys the goblin and elf armies). After spending some time staying with Werfel in the goblin city and failing to deliver the device, Spurge flees with Werfel after nearly being arrested for spying, initiating a series of adventures in the wilderness (involving bandits, survival, and pursuing goblin soldiers). Finally, Spurge and Werfel end up witnessing a final clash between the elves and goblins, which results in both armies being destroyed by the elves’ device.
On a more internal level, Spurge also experiences internal conflict as he transitions from a haughty scholar who is prejudiced against all goblins and has absolute faith in the superiority of the elves to a more compassionate character who recognizes the beauty of goblin culture and is disillusioned with the newly-revealed cruelty and heartlessness of the elves. This appears most significantly in the initial difference between the graphic-novel and narrative sections— at the beginning of the book, the graphic-novel portions of the story depict Spurge’s highly prejudiced view of the goblins and their society, but as he gradually recognizes the error of his ways, the illustrations start to better match the narrative (and the actual reality of the story). Overall, the plot of this book is complex and balanced, but could also be confusing because of the multiple different narrative styles through which it unfolds (graphic-novel, prose, and occasional fictional letters). (7/10)
The two main characters are Brangwain Spurge and Archivist Werfel, who, despite being an elf and a goblin respectively, have many interests in common. Ironically, however, Spurge’s initial haughtiness prevents them from being friends until later in the book, after Spurge has become more humble. Other characters include Ghohg the Outworlder, the mysterious and possibly alien ruler of the goblins; Regibald du Burgh, a goblin who chases after Werfel and Spurge as they try to escape Tenebrion; and Lord Spymaster Ysoret Clivers, an elf noble whose letters to the Elf King progressively reveal the elves’ brutality (every time Clivers fails an assignment, the Elf King has one of his fingers cut off).
The tone of the characters’ interactions tends to bounce back and forth between serious and lighthearted— Werfel and Spurge get into fierce arguments over which side started the war between the goblins and elves, for example, but Werfel also wonders at one point whether elves are allergic to “small hospitality chocolates,” and goblins attempting to speak Elvish also say things like “I am in the happy-sauce we finded you.” Overall, the characters in this book are engaging and often hilarious— but also address some serious topics in a meaningful way. (9/10)
As mentioned above under “Difficulty,” the hardest part of this particular book is its multiple styles— it switches frequently from graphic-novel format to standard narrative, and it also includes sections in epistolary format (in this case, fictional letters from the character Ysoret Clivers). While the story isn’t particularly difficult in terms of plot, the stylistic transitions (while necessary to illustrate the book’s message) also make it a bit trickier to read, particularly the illustrations, which can be a bit ambiguous early on. However, the characters are distinct and easy to keep straight, and the book certainly isn’t unmanageable overall. (4/10)
Quality of writing
Arguably the most impressive aspect of this book’s writing is its premise of having a book split between graphic-novel format and standard narrative where each part tells a slightly different story. That alone makes this book a very interesting read, but what that structure achieves is also fascinating: by presenting Spurge’s initially highly biased perspective through the story’s illustrations, authors Anderson and Yelchin portray a compelling image of Spurge’s prejudice against goblins, which make sit all the more impressive when Spurge overcomes that prejudice by the end of the book (and realizes that there is really no good reason for the war between goblins and elves— both are simply prejudiced and blaming the other side).
On the other hand, this book also balances its more serious elements with significant humor, as mentioned above under “Characters,” and the overall effect is one of an engaging and sometimes amusing story that also has great depth for readers who pay attention. (8/10)
This book has no concerning language or sexual content to speak of, and the only real concern for readers and parents is its relatively frequent mentions of violence. The book is set against the background of a war between elves and goblins, and Spurge and Werfel are threatened by goblins at several points with beheading, stabbing, or similar violent acts. However, these never actually occur and are usually prevented at the last second by the characters’ daring or cleverness. Regibald du Burgh discusses cutting elves’ arms off at the wrist during the war (he says, “I myself was very gentle with the elves during the war. When most goblins took elfin prisoners, the cut their arms off at the elbow. Not me, sir… I always cut off your people’s hands right at the wrist.”) Also, in the epistolary sections about Ysoret Clivers, Clivers describes having several of his fingers cut off for failing to accomplish the Elf King’s orders (and a fake blood splatter appears on one page). However, although violence is depicted with some frequency, the book is not a graphic one overall (descriptions of violence are more common in the narrative portions than in the graphic-novel parts), and what violence there is is not gratuitous— in fact, it effectively underscores the books point about the pointlessness of the goblin-elf war.
Because of this book’s complex and mixed writing style, as well as its admittedly somewhat frequent descriptions of violence, parents and readers should exercise their best judgement in deciding an appropriate age range for this book. I would suggest that readers 12 and up can enjoy this book, but parents should note that this may not apply equally well for all readers.