As a book lover, nothing delights me more than when a friend recommends a book to me and, after reading it, I’m able to go back and tell her that I unequivocally loved it. For a few years now, Ms. Was has been singing the praises of The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, and now I’m finally able to say, “Thank you for introducing me to this gem.”
Brangwain Spurge is an elf entrusted with an important mission: Enter the land of the goblins and deliver an engraved gemstone as a gift to overlord Ghohg, a peace offering between enemy nations. He’s also expected to spy on the goblin government and send back transmissions by way of visual images. Werfel is the goblin charged with playing host to the elfin ambassador and introducing him to the ways of the goblin world, while also keeping a close eye on him and reporting any suspicious behavior. This is a perfect setup for enemies to realize how much they have in common; indeed, both are historians and should hit it off right away. Werfel expresses his joy at this prospect even before Spurge arrives. “Finally: contact with the enemy. With another scholar. With someone else who loved antiquity and beautiful things, and who shared his hope for this beleaguered world.”
Unfortunately, things go awry almost immediately, as Spurge proves to be fussy and unappreciative of goblin hospitality. He’s repulsed by goblin food; he misinterprets Werfel’s attempts to make him feel at home as mockery; he turns every conversation about previous elf/goblin conflicts into a diatribe about how the goblins started it. He’s basically the worst ambassador since Joseph Kennedy, Sr. Werfel, on the other hand, is absolutely adorable. He’s earnest in his desire to understand his foreign guest (“Werfel thought of the old saying: Elf and goblin, we all have pointy ears. So true.”); he has an unusual pet that looks like a cross between an octopus, a bat, and a cuttlefish whom he calls his cuddlefish (awwww); he steps in and tries to protect his guest every time Spurge makes a misstep. He’s the most upstanding goblin since. . .well, I don’t know. Do we have other examples of upstanding goblins in literature?
If the only message were that sometimes the ones we think are the bad guys are really the good guys, that would be enough for a children’s book, but The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge offers so much more. Yes, it plays against our expectations that goblins are the evil folk, but it also demonstrates how normal people get swept up in the wars between their governments and how propaganda poisons people’s minds against their perceived enemy. In one amusing scene, Spurge and Werfel are studying the engravings on the gemstone, which depict a massacre. Of course, they interpret the scene differently. Spurge claims that such a violent scene must have been carved by goblins in celebration of a slaughter of elves, to which Werfel says, “I admire your scholarship, but that is an elfin army on the attack. This was carved in celebration of an elfin victory.” Spurge replies, “What fresh and unusual ideas you have.”
Perhaps because his people have been the losers in the previous wars, Werfel is far wiser than his elfin counterpart. He delivers some devastating truths to his companion, such as the idea that they are both pawns in a larger conflict. “Just because you’re useful to the wealthy doesn’t mean they’ll reward you. It just means they’ll use you.” Ouch. Well done, guys, for teaching the kids harsh realities early!
I haven’t mentioned the illustrations yet, so I’ll go on record saying that they are equally as important as the writing. They are not only delightful but serve to move the plot forward. All the illustrations are Spurge’s transmissions home–they reflect his perception of the situations he encounters. So not only do they present action that is taking place, they are also the most clever expression of the unreliable narrator technique I’ve seen probably ever.
If I had read this book as a child I’d have thought it was super deep; and you know, I’d have been right. I’ve read many an adult novel that was less adept at handling themes of war, enemies, poverty, and bias. I can’t recommend this book enough for children and adults alike.