Jim C. Hines‘ first novel in the “Jig the Goblin” series is the fine and funny GOBLIN QUEST. Jig is a goblin who’s scrawnier and smaller than most other goblins; the only reason he’s survived to adulthood is that he’s considerably smarter than most other goblins. But because he’s so very small, he’s been bullied his entire life and has often been stuck with the most menial chores; this has caused him to have what might be termed an “attitude problem” with regards to other goblins, though Jig himself feels he must take this attitude or he won’t survive long enough to continue his complaints. His only friend is his fire-spider, Smudge.
Anyway, Jig’s quickly caught up into a quest adventure with four companions: the royal brothers Barius Wendelson, a fighter, and Ryslind, a wizard (both human); their tutor, Darnak (a dwarf); and a young Elven thief, Riana. They’re looking for the Rod of Creation, a weapon that could save or damn the world; the reason they’ve come to the caverns where the goblins and their slightly bigger and dumber cousins, the hobgoblins, live, is because legend says it’s been hidden there.
Because this is a quest story, what we really have is a hero’s journey of sorts. Yet Jig doesn’t really get the approbation of others, as he would in a traditional hero’s journey; instead, he’s mostly ignored. (This is by design, as this is a satirical send-up of the genre.) But being ignored gives Jig the opportunity for several choice words about the problems with wizards (they overextend themselves frequently when they aren’t just going plumb-crazy), the problems with fighters (they’re dumb as a box of rocks), and how even smart men, like Darnak, will try to convince themselves that subservience to royalty (as Barius and Ryslind are the seventh and eighth sons of their respective royal house) is worth their time when they have to know in their heart that it isn’t. All of this is played for laughs, or at minimum, irony, and is a decidedly different take on the entire “quest story” genre.
As the journey progresses, Jig’s helpful comments are mostly not appreciated, except by Riana (the least-powerful member of the group) and, to a certain extent, Darnak. Even Jig’s best actions, which shows that there’s a brain hidden behind his weedy blue body, don’t really penetrate the minds of the dim-bulb Barius or the power-mad Ryslind. Because of this, there is a distinct lack of fellow-feeling amidst the party; Jig and Riana both know they’re there on sufferance and that they could be killed or otherwise dispensed with whenever they lose their usefulness, which is why they end up becoming friends — a sort of “Odd Couple” of the fantasy world, as it were.
But even this rather handy friendship has its limits, as when Jig tries to explain what the goblins live on (other goblins, if need be; other races, if available). And Riana often gets disgusted with Jig’s matter-of-fact attitude with regards to pain and travail; she knows, even if he doesn’t, that she deserves better than this. And this helps permeate Jig’s overall lack of self-worth, which starts Jig’s real hero’s journey of self-examination and consciousness raising. Jig even decides to worship a God — a forgotten one, Tymalous Shadowstar, whom Jig hopes will not mind a goblin follower — which is a significant, though odd, step toward Jig becoming his own man (er, goblin).
So there are fights, as you might expect. And there are victories, as you also might expect. But there’s a lot of snark here, too, which is greatly welcome; the asides about other, traditional quest stories (a quasi LORD OF THE RINGS epic, possibly an analogue to Terry Brooks’ THE SWORD OF SHANNARA, and even a sideways wink at epics like Terry Goodkind’s WIZARD’S FIRST RULE), just add to the fun because it’s obvious that Hines knows his quest stories down cold.
So what happens, exactly, to Barius, Ryslind, and their tutor, Darnak? And will Riana and Jig be able to make successful lives for themselves? While I refuse to spoil this, I will say that if you enjoy satire with a sharp edge, you will appreciate what happens to them all.
This is a very good debut novel with a whole lot to recommend it; it’s funny, it’s fast-paced, it promotes the value of real friendships, and it even has an ending that most readers will cheer. I appreciated Hines’ take on quest stories, and I believe if you give GOBLIN QUEST a chance, you will, too.
— reviewed by Barb