Philip Reeve is a class act, a marvellously original creator of intelligent and entertaining fictions. The Mortal Engines series remains his great achievement, but with Goblins – as if taking a little time off to please himself (and, it seems from a note on his website, his son) – he has produced something altogether lighter but no less brilliant: a fantasia on a theme by Tolkien, a relaxed and joyous riff on a familiar-sounding world of trolls, giants and wizards, where the dark tower of the ruined fortress of Clovenstone, inhabited now by nests of loutish goblins, awaits the return of the Lych Lord's rightful heir, a mighty sorcerer to rule the world.Part of the joy lies in the characters: Breslaw the one-eyed, one-eared, one-legged, half-tailed goblin-hatching master; Henwyn the cheesewright, who wants only to be a hero; Fentongoose the bogus magus of the Sable Conclave; level-headed Princess Eluned; good-natured giant Fraddon; and a cheese demon – the fondue from hell. Best of all is Skarper, a goblin who – very oddly – prefers thinking to scrapping. Like Roald Dahl's Matilda, he suffers the abuse of his stupider peers. The story opens with him being ejected from Blackspike Tower by bratapult. Luckily for the reader, he survives, and his accident-prone attempts to preserve himself somehow turn into a quest that will lead him, together with the overly polite hero Henwyn, into the heart of the dark tower.
The story moves forward nicely, has pace and variety and never flags. Driving everything are the competing attempts of different characters to prove themselves the Lych Lord's heir. Will it be Fentongoose, or the goblin King Knobbler, or someone entirely unexpected?
The writing, as usual with Reeve, is beautiful, tending here to the comic. Lovely passages are invariably capped by humour. The origin myths, propounded by Princess Eluned, begin with an economical, delicate beauty ("On the floors of rivers stones stretched their limbs and became trolls") and end with the bathetic ("Lava lakes hawked up the first eggstones and goblins smashed their way out of them and started squabbling"). King Knobbler – genuinely ferocious – talks like a numbskull and wears pink flannel underpants. Gags abound, quick and sharp. Henwyn announces that Princess Eluned's father is "certain to reward me with her hand in marriage". "Her hand?" says the baffled Skarper. Knowing asides about the genre – "'I never realised that adventures involved quite so many stairs!' said Ned" – add to the fun.
Original notions casually appear from time to time (that giants grow down, from mountains to pebbles, for instance), and perhaps it's a shame that they usually aren't developed. But that's not the enterprise here. Goblins is a send-up, witty and affectionate, and wonderful fun. Given that it's the first in a series, it may in fact develop in unforeseen ways. Skarper, the clever and sensitive goblin who learns (rather to his disgust) to develop suspicious, dirty little virtues such as kindness and friendliness, is a character to follow into any story, and his partnership with Henwyn in future adventures is a treat to look forward to.