The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin, 544 pp, RL 4
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge
Review Copy from Candlewick Press
Where to begin? The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge is so many marvelous things and will mean so many varied things to each individual reader that I am struggling to distill what I want you, readers of this review, to know about this incredible, engaging, engrossing, timeless book. I will start with these two nutshell descriptions of The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge from somewhat reliable sources: "It is about the life and death of prejudices," said my husband, a high school history teacher with a specific interest in politics and war and occasional reader of kidlit. And, the reviewer for Kirkus, who, calling this book splendid, describes it as, "Monty Python teams up with Maxwell Smart for a wrestling mat with Tolkien."
The plot of this book is as layered as the design, which is part epistolary, part graphic novel, with multiple narratives. The (fictional) quote at the start of the book sets the tone, letting readers know that The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge is both about what you see and how you see it. In an interview with Bianca Schulze at The Children's Book Review, Yelchin shared that, around the same time he met Anderson (who had written Yelchin a fan letter) he became interested in, "the idea of an illustrated novel, in which the illustrations would contradict the text instead of illuminating it. The story had to be told from two opposing points of view, which meant having two protagonists instead of one and, ideally, two authors." The titular character is a scholar of Elfland, specializing in Goblin history, language and culture. Spurge is selected by the head of the Order of the Clean Hand (and former childhood classmate and tormentor) to act as an emissary, delivering a recently unearthed Goblin artifact to Ghohg, a baffling creature from another world who unified and rules the kingdom of the goblins. Through letters to the king, readers learn that the Order of the Clean Hand is using Spurge as both a spy and a death bringer, as the artifact he carries is actually a bomb. Yelchin's illustrations are the reports that Spurge sends back to the kingdom by way of a magical device that allows him to transmit his thoughts.
In the kingdom of goblins, Spurge is hosted by Werfel, also an archivist and scholar, specializing in Elfin history and culture. Playing against stereotype (in an author's note at the end of the book, which is also a hilarious conversation between Anderson and Yelchin, we learn that they wondered why, "goblins get such a bad rap in fantasy novels...") Werfel is a conscientious and gracious host with a rich tradition of goblin hospitality to live up to. In fact, he spends many minutes fretting over the chocolate he has left on Spurge's pillow, worried that elves might be allergic to chocolate. Sadly, Spurge cannot hide his disgust and abhorrence, only seeing goblins as the brutal, violent beasts every book has portrayed them as. Werfel tries to engage Spurge on an academic level, and his sadness when he fails is palpable. However, through a series of Python-esque mishaps and blunders, Spurge and Werfel, along with Werfel's pet ichtyod, Skardebek, or Bekky, a key player in this story, find themselves on the run and hunted by both elves and goblins. My favorite part of the book comes when Spurge and Werfel have an intellectual showdown, tossing of academic book titles (like Melgeant Fraise' Seven Rules of Architecture, With an Appendix on Closets) left and right, trying to out do each other. How Spurge's prejudice lives and dies is hilarious, exciting and ultimately poignant, as is Werfel's admirable non-aggressive persistent efforts to enlighten Spurge to the truth of the past, which is not the truth as told in elvish history books. I especially loved the epilogue, where efforts are made to tell history as it was witnessed by those who were there, and where Spurge, the elf, finds himself having a uniquely goblin experience.