Review: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge – Chock Full of Wit, Intelligence, and Hilarity

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge

Title: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge
Author: M.T. Anderson; Eugene Yelchin (Illustrator)
Publisher: Candlewick
Release Date: September 25th, 2018
Genre(s): YA Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: History
Page Count: 544 (hardback)

Rating: 8.5/10

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This is the first M.T Anderson book I’ve read since his Octavian Nothing series (must-read books) and it’s great to see that he’s continuing on the trend of writing subversive, challenging stories that ignore the usual conventions of YA, because The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge is a brilliant fantasy tale that tackles everything from cultural prejudice and historical biases to war and monarchical corruption, and all with a dark humour and wit that will 100% appeal to Pratchett fans.

The Elfin Kingdom and the Goblin Kingdom have been at war with each other since pretty much forever. They’d only reached a tentative truce five years ago and the elfin king has decided he would send a little gift to the goblin court as a gesture of goodwill. So historian Brangwain Spurge gets selected to deliver this token of diplomacy to the goblin ruler and report back on what he sees of the goblin city. And just so happens that Spurge’s goblin guide, Werfel, is a historian himself–what fun!

We alternate from Werfel’s POV, which is all in written form, to Braingwain’s POV, shown as a series of illustrations which are “Top Secret Transmissions” that he magically creates and sends off to the Elfin kingdom as day-to-day reports. That’s good and all except Spurge’s view is hilariously, horrifyingly different from that of Werfel. His versions of the goblins look like they should belong in a horror house– grotesque and barbaric with the occasional entrails and beheaded heads adorning the background. Glorious nightmare-fuel stuff. Werfel on the other hand shows the goblins as eclectic, but charming and mostly well-meaning. It’s unreliable narration at its most fun and Yelchin does a wonderful job bringing the horrors to life.

There’s also some really nice, subtle character development that I didn’t expect in a story as parable-y as this one. Werfel goes from an eager-to-please, overly gracious host to being utterly frustrated and done with Spurge insulting his culture and making trouble. Seeing their rather one-sided relationship develop into one of mutual appreciation and friendship is an incredibly satisfying experience.

What I most loved about the book, though? All the myriad of topics it manages to address. I love YA/children’s authors who don’t talk down to their readers and Anderson’s motto when it comes to writing seems to be, “kids are scary smart and they understand more of this world than adults give them credit for.” And with this book he tackles subjects that we don’t even see in many adult fantasy–things like post-colonialism and the construction and control of public belief via secret police.

At its core, though, the story is about history and how we interpret them. Werfel and Spurge both have different ideas on how the elf/goblin war went down. The former believes the elves were the warmongers, driving the goblins out of their homeland forests, and Spurge believes the goblins were the massacrers and the elfin government the arbiter of peace. This leads to hilarious debates and frustrations on both sides, and through these little exchanges Anderson makes a point of how countries tweak, shift, and erase history to fit the narrative they want to sell to their citizens. It’s quite wonderfully done.

The story also examines the way we view other cultures–of how easy it is for prejudice to seep into our minds. At first glance an aspect of another culture’s can be discomforting and strange. So do you cling to this shallow impression you have of them like a safety blanket, or do you try to step out of your comfort zone and get to know them better? Seek out their stories and traditions? Bridge the gap? I love stories that try to combat “otherness” and fear of otherness, and this does exactly that. And the best part is that it never gets boring or preachy.

From start to finish The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge blends wit, action, and dark humour to create a story that’s not only full of depth but also a lot of fun. It’s one I highly recommend to all readers, young and old.

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Copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

[Review] Lamb – Jesus Christ and His Best Friend Walk into a Bar…

Lamb


Title:
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal
Author: Christopher Moore
Publisher: Harper Collins
Release Date: March 1st, 2002
Genre(s): Historical Fiction, Humour, Fantasy
Page Count: 464 pages
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Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

I’m not going to make a frequent habit of reviewing books that are more than 10 years old, but occasionally one will come along that makes me sit up and sing its praises. This is one of them.

Lamb is a coming-of-age story like no other. It’s Jesus Christ: The Origin told through the eyes of Levi bar Alphaeus, who is called Biff, who just happens to be Jesus Christ’s best friend.

“Whoa–whoa, wait a minute,” you might say. “I may be an unapologetic heathen who’s never come within ten feet of a Bible, but even I know there’s no mention of anyone called BIFF.”

Well, my friend, that’s where you’re wrong. Because Biff has been unfairly redacted out of the Bible and Christopher Moore has kindly inserted him back and given him a chance to fill in the crucial missing years of Jesus (who is called “Joshua”) between the age of six and thirty. It’s not a biography. It’s not a fantasy (well, it’s mostly not fantasy–we do meet a singing yeti at one point). It’s a “what if.” What if Jesus had had a best friend named Biff? What dumb kid-things would they have done? What adventures would they have led? What pains would they have shared?

Joshua is, as you would imagine, a very sensitive, sweet-mannered kid. He also doesn’t have a deceitful bone in his body, which makes life just a tad difficult for Biff because he’s the one who has to cover up Josh’s various miracles and treasonous talk. Moore strips down all the reverence that surrounds Jesus Christ and shows him as a young boy. A very special boy, but a boy nonetheless. One dogged with all the uncertainties that come with the knowledge that he is to be the saviour of humanity. It didn’t take me long to completely fall in love with him.

But Biff is really the star of the show. He’s funny and irreverent and also the glue that holds the duo together. His early conflicting feelings toward Josh are wholly familiar and easy to empathize with; it’s the feeling of being overshadowed by the seeming perfection of your best friend, while also knowing that you would walk to hell and back for them–and Moore captures it perfectly. The friendship between these two is one of helpless, exasperated love and unquestionable loyalty. I loved every moment of it.

“What if I am not really the Messiah?”

“You mean you’re not sure? The angel didn’t give it away? You think that God might be playing a joke on you? I don’t think so. I don’t know the Torah as well as you, Joshua, but I don’t remember God having a sense of humor.”

Finally, a grin. “He gave me you as a best friend, didn’t he?”

I think the humour will be a hit or a miss for a lot of readers. For me, it’s the former. There are moments that sent me off into serious contemplation and then, a couple of lines later, had me breaking down into giggles. It’s absurd humour. It’s crude humour. It’s poignant humour. Sometimes it dips a little too far into the ridiculous, but I very much enjoyed it for the most part.

…Here’s the gist of almost every sermon I ever heard Joshua give.

You should be nice to people, even creeps.

And if you:
a) believed that Joshua was the Son of God (and)
b) he had come to save you from sin (and)
c) acknowledged the Holy Spirit within you (became as a little child, he would say) (and)
d) didn’t blaspheme the Holy Ghost (see c), then you would:
e) live forever
f) someplace nice
g) probably heaven

However, if you:
h) sinned (and/or)
i) were a hypocrite (and/or)
j) valued things over people (and)
k) didn’t do a, b, c, and d, then you were:
l) fucked

(If this kind of humour is your thing, then you’ll love Lamb)

But what I find most brilliant is that, in a story about the birth of Christianity, Moore decided to examine other religions as well. The idea that Christ had to explore and learn the teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism to become the person he needed to become, is downright plausible, if somewhat anachronistic (Buddhism didn’t spread into China until many centuries after Christ). It facilitates the notion that love, kindness, generosity, and living a life free of ego and greed should be universal to all humans, regardless of faith or origin, and I love that.

Though some prior knowledge of the New Testaments would enrich the experience, you don’t need to have read them to enjoy the story. Part coming-of-age, part super-charged adventure, and 100% unexpectedly heartwarming, Lamb is a book I recommend to anyone, Christian, Catholic, atheist or otherwise.