Selznickian became an adjective of choice for me in 2007 when Brian Selznick created his genre-busting novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, weaving together word and image in a way that had not been done before.
Since then, he has given us several more books with clusters of his trademark-detailed, graphite, image-only pages that advance the storyline. Selznickian is my word for that kind of book, and it is a seldom-used word because almost no one has followed in Sezlnick’s footsteps.
However, 2018 has brought us a new, delightfully Selznickian fantasy with its own special twist. It’s a National Book Award finalist, and it’s a rare treat, ready to spin its magic on you and your kids, ages 10 and up.
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, written by M.T. Anderson, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin
published in 2018 by Candlewick Press
Kirkus Reviews says it’s as though, “Monty Python teams up with Maxwell Smart for a wrestling match with Tolkien,” and I couldn’t have crafted a better summation than that!
The story of Brangwain Spurge, an elf-spy heading into the land of goblins on a supposedly peacemaking mission which goes terribly awry, is all at once comical, adventurous, fantastical, and relevant.
You’ll snort over the ridiculousness of goblin-elf interactions, cringe at the bloody cruelty and political maneuverings of the powers that be, root for the most generous, self-sacrificial, kindhearted goblin you’ll ever meet, and recognize reflections of our own cultural misapprehensions, stereotypes, and aggressions, the stubborn elements of racial superiority that plague our world.
The brilliance of this particular novel is the way Anderson and Yelchin have taken the unreliable narrator device and ratcheted it up three notches. In prose sections, we hear the voice of Werfel, a goblin archivist eagerly awaiting his chance to host his fellow historian, the elf Brangwain. Werfel’s narration of his thoughts and the unfolding disaster give us an insider’s window on goblin society and his own kind heart.
Meanwhile, Brangwain, on his spy mission, employs special elf technology, conjuring up images of the goings-on in this goblin world and then beaming those mental pictures back to headquarters where his boss, Mr. Clivers, receives them and uses them to refine the elf king’s dastardly plans. Brangwain’s view of goblin culture is decidedly dim, distorted by preconceived notions and smug disdain. He is the quintessential unreliable narrator. Thus the two narratives — goblin and elf, word and image — tell quite different stories.
In addition, numerous letters between the elf-boss Clivers and the Elven King himself reveal details of a plot which even Brangwain does not know, giving us our third window on one convoluted enterprise.
Anderson paces the text masterfully, flipping us back and forth between viewpoints in 67 very-short chapters. Yelchin’s illustration work is meticulous, fantastical, extraordinary. It is a complete joy to journey as a reader from unfamiliarity and befuddlement, to clearer understanding, and then sometimes back again, as we contend with, interpret, and compare these three voices.
Highly recommended to folks ages 10-ish and up. This book, obviously, requires some maturity on the part of the reader in order to interpret illustrated portions, question the narrators, and piece the action together. It would make a fabulous book club choice. There is so much going on here that offers tremendously rich fodder for discussion. Adults, you’ll love this middle-grade read, too!