Saturday, March 23, 2013

Reliving My Misspent Youth: The Goblin Corps

Dev and I took Elliot to family story time three weeks ago at the Kenton branch of the Multnomah County Library. We had good times with the 22 other families (!) in the room. As usual, before we left the library, I browsed through the shelves randomly in the adventure, fantasy and sic-fi section. I almost never find anything that begs me to check it out and read it. Doubly so in this day of digital catalog searching and reservation. Most of the time I find the second or fifth book in a cool looking series and never get around to trying to find the first book in the series.

Not this time.

I saw the title on the spine and had to look.

The gist is that the book follows the adventures of the plucky band of "bad" guys. They go on missions for Morthul the Charnel King, an ancient, evil and rotting undead king who wants, literally, to rule the known world. The morality of the protagonists is grayer than the traditional flannel suit. And they do some truly disgusting things often enough that anyone with a weak stomach shouldn't read the book. What author Ari Marmell does so well in this book is to write the characters to have believable motivations. Even the Charnel King seems sympathetic in the moments when he is not ruthlessly crushing his opposition - opposition, by the way, that comes almost entirely from outside his kingdom. His subjects seem to be mostly normal people living mostly normal lives not overly concerned with the morality (or lack thereof) of their king.

Really what I loved about the book is that it reminds me of (confession time) all the hours I spent playing Dungeons and Dragons with my friends in high school and college. Ari is himself a gamer and his characters interact in the way that I remember all of the players interacting during the game. Their banter could be the recorded chatter of me and my friends sitting around the table on game night. Also, the characters in the book come up with crazy and creative solutions to the problems they must overcome in their missions. Solutions like using bedsheets to defeat an extremely dangerous enemy that can trash five of the "heroes" in a "fair" fight. My friends and I would come up with wild ideas for our heroes to try. Solutions neither provided for by the rules of the game, nor considered by the adventure guide of the current mission. Sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn't, but they were always fun to try.

It took me a while to realize that this last element of the book charmed me so much. After I finished reading the 550 pages (which only took five days - five days where I was working), I considered getting a copy of Neverwinter Nights (a D&D video game) or a short-term indulgence from Devon for World of Warcraft. Then I realized that I wanted the imagination and storytelling part of the role-playing game; the part of the game where every scene from every movie runs through your head and a cinematic, wild, unlikely action pops in your head. Win or lose, everyone around the table holds their breath and the game has its own reality for just a split second.

Point of fact, one of the longest running games I played in college was International Missions Force (IMF). A friend had cooked up the game rules based on a couple of other games. Really, the game barely HAD rules. We players were elite agents solving problems around the world. Maybe solving is the wrong word. In any case, those nights were collective bouts of storytelling fueled by junk food, caffeine, bad movies, good movies, and the cinema in our heads.

I haven't started playing D&D again. I do miss the collective storytelling.

Anyway, if you like fantasy novels or if you played D&D, you should probably read The Goblin Corps.

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