Review: Nine Goblins, by T. Kingfisher

Russ Allbery eagle at
Fri Nov 27 23:07:53 PST 2020

Nine Goblins
by T. Kingfisher

Publisher: Red Wombat Tea Company
Copyright: 2013
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     140

The goblins are at war, a messy multi-sided war also involving humans,
elves, and orcs. The war was not exactly their idea, although the
humans would claim otherwise. Goblins kept moving farther and farther
into the wilderness to avoid human settlements, and then they ran out
of wilderness, and it wasn't clear what else to do. For the Nineteenth
Infantry, the war is a confusing business, full of boredom and
screaming and being miserable and following inexplicable orders. And
then they run into a wizard.

Wizards in this world are not right in the head, and by not right I
mean completely psychotic. That's the only way that you get magical
powers. Wizards are therefore incredibly dangerous and scarily
unpredictable, so when the Whinin' Nineteenth run into a human wizard
who shoots blue out of his mouth, making him stop shooting blue out of
his mouth becomes a high priority. Goblins have only one effective way
of stopping things: charge at them and hit them with something until
they stop. Wizards have things like emergency escape portals. And
that's how the entire troop of nine goblins ended up far, far behind
enemy lines.

Sings-to-Trees's problems, in contrast, are rather more domestic. At
the start of the book, they involve, well:

  Sings-to-Trees had hair the color of sunlight and ashes, delicately
  pointed ears, and eyes the translucent green of new leaves. His
  shirt was off, he had the sort of tanned muscle acquired from years
  of healthy outdoor living, and you could have sharpened a sword on
  his cheekbones.

  He was saved from being a young maiden's fantasy — unless she was a
  very peculiar young maiden — by the fact that he was buried up to
  the shoulder in the unpleasant end of a heavily pregnant unicorn.

Sings-to-Trees is the sort of elf who lives by himself, has a healthy
appreciation for what nursing wild animals involves, and does it anyway
because he truly loves animals. Despite that, he was not entirely
prepared to deal with a skeleton deer with a broken limb, or at least
with the implications of injured skeleton deer who are attracted by
magical disturbances showing up in his yard.

As one might expect, Sings-to-Trees and the goblins run into each other
while having to sort out some problems that are even more dangerous
than the war the goblins were unexpectedly removed from. But the point
of this novella is not a deep or complex plot. It pushes together a
bunch of delightfully weird and occasionally grumpy characters, throws
a challenge at them, and gives them space to act like fundamentally
decent people working within their constraints and preconceptions. It
is, in other words, an excellent vehicle for Ursula Vernon (writing as
T. Kingfisher) to describe exasperated good-heartedness and stubbornly
determined decency.

  Sings-to-Trees gazed off in the middle distance with a vague,
  pleasant expression, the way that most people do when present at
  other people's minor domestic disputes, and after a moment, the stag
  had stopped rattling, and the doe had turned back and rested her
  chin trustingly on Sings-to-Trees' shoulder.

  This would have been a touching gesture, if her chin hadn't been
  made of painfully pointy blades of bone. It was like being snuggled
  by an affectionate plow.

It's not a book you read for the twists and revelations (the resolution
is a bit of an anti-climax). It's strength is in the side moments of
characterization, in the author's light-hearted style, and in
descriptions like the above. Sings-to-Trees is among my favorite
characters in all of Vernon's books, surpassed only by gnoles and a few
characters in Digger.

The Kingfisher books I've read recently have involved humans and magic
and romance and more standard fantasy plots. This book is from seven
years ago and reminds me more of Digger. There is less expected plot
machinery, more random asides, more narrator presence, inhuman
characters, no romance, and a lot more focus on characters deciding
moment to moment how to tackle the problem directly in front of them. I
wouldn't call it a children's book (all of the characters are adults),
but it has a bit of that simplicity and descriptive focus.

If you like Kingfisher in descriptive mode, or enjoy Vernon's
descriptions of D&D campaigns on Twitter, you are probably going to
like this. If you don't, you may not. I thought it was slight but
perfect for my mood at the time.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-11-27

Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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