After spending centuries on a cunning plan for world domination, the Charnel Lord Morthûl is foiled by sorceror Ananais duMark and his group of meddling heroes. Out of spite Morthûl murders the only daughter of duMark’s liege, King Dororam, who in turn assembles all the armies of the Allied Kingdoms in an effort to end the threat of Morthûl once and for all. Morthûl has no intention of being destroyed by mere mortals and plots a counterstrike that involves forming an elite Demon Squad for a top secret mission. Thus Cræosh the orc, Katim the troll, Belrotha the ogre, Fezeill the doppelganger, Gimmol the gremlin, Gork the kobold and Jhurpess the bugbear are thrown together and expected to get along on pain of an extremely torturous death (or merely the prospect of joining the Charnel Lord’s legion of undead servants). At any rate, they have other things to worry about, like the historic survival rate for Demon Squads being on the low side and not having a clue about the finer details of the mission. Or, indeed, any of them. If the group can survive for long enough and avoid killing each other then perhaps they’ll be the ones who will save the day, albeit for the forces of evil.
Telling a fantasy story from the point of view of the villains is nothing new. Mary Gentle was one of the first almost twenty years ago (Grunts!) and more recently Stan Nicholls (the Orcs series) and Jim C. Hines (Jig the Goblin) have had a crack. So what does Marmell bring to the table with his effort? Subverted tropes, complex characters and plotting? You wish. What you get is course-grained characterisation and relationships predicated on gross racial behaviours, layered with bad slapstick comedy married to a plot ripped out wholesale from a roleplaying quest. That is to say that the Demon Squad go looking for various magical items, during which the big guys (the orc and troll) pick on the small guys (the gremlin and the kobold) whilst the ogre and the bugbear provide comic relief by being really fucking stupid. Some of it is even occasionally amusing:
A keening war cry rose to the uncaring heavens, and it took the startled Cræosh a moment to realize that it had come from the gremlin!
“For King Morthûl! For the Demon Squad!” Gimmol shouted, eyes gleaming with fervor and anticipation – and then glistening blade a shining beacon above his head, he charged madly in the wrong direction.
“Gremlins,” Fezeill observed as the stunned party watched him go, “do not have particularly good night vision”
There is a fair amount of shit-wading to be done to get to those rare moments and there are many more instances of
dwarf kobold/gremlin tossing, insults on a par with ‘your Mum’ jokes, ‘funny’ bullying and narrative missteps, deliberate or otherwise. Cræosh uses nicknames such as Nature-boy for Jhupess (because he’s simian and lives in a forest), Dog-breath for Katim (trolls in this world have hyena heads) and Shorty for Gork (because he’s…you get the idea). Oh do stop, Mr Marmell, my sides are splitting.
The repetitive nature of the comedy makes reading the book a complete slog, assuming you are able to survive prose that describes a serpent-like creature as moving “with the speed (unsurprisingly) of a striking snake” or a character losing his balance and staggering “sideways in a clumsy dance as his entire center of balance became, well, uncentered”. There is a later example of such poor narration that is lampshaded as being the fault of the character’s exhausted state; fair enough but this would have worked better if Marmell had done it much earlier and, more importantly, knew the difference between a simile and a metaphor. With wordplay chapter titles such as “Elf Care” and “Ogre and Under”, the book elicited a binary response of Picard-style facepalms and wanting to punch the author in the face.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the pacing is completely broken. It takes 200 pages to find out about the Demon Squad’s mission, the aforementioned magical item hunt, carried out on behalf of Morthûl wife, Queen Anne (one would never have guessed that Marmell got his start writing material for Dungeons & Dragons). There are some sub-plots added for variety, such as Gimmol’s secret talent and from the introduction of dark elf Nurien Ebonwind who wants information on troop movements, but they also take so long to play out that they all collapse under the weight of expectation. Once those all wind up, we’re onto another secret mission that finishes all too quickly before the epilogue and the shocking, shocking I tell you, twist. James Barclay thinks that having fantasy stereotypes thrown in your face is entertaining and fun. I think he’s talking rubbish.
Few and far between they may be, there are occasional glimmers of worth buried in the dross. Genuinely amusing scenes occur from time to time and Marmell’s decision to start proceedings after Morthûl’s grand defeat is an interesting take on the trope (although, again, this was done first by Gentle). Also in its favour is the fact that the book is a standalone and the cover is gorgeous, even if it won’t appeal to fans outside of the genre.
In many ways, I’m surprised that there is still so much shit fantasy published when the genre has been elevated to higher standards. Back in the Nineties, I read far too many Dragonlance novels as a teenager and I would probably have lapped up The Goblin Corps. In the meantime Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch (amongst a good many others) have had fantasy works published that do witty dialogue and black humour a damn sight better and have got fantasy trope subversion down to a fine art. In short, go and read Abercrombie et al instead.