Moonlight and Manners: A Review of Goblin Moon by Teresa Edgerton

goblin moonThere was already awareness that a new strain of fantasy had developed when Donald G. Keller first labeled it “fantasy of manners” in his article “The Manner of Fantasy,” published in the April 1991 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction.  This subgenre–sometimes called “mannerpunk”–is noticeably less influenced by Big Name Fantasists like J.R.R.  Tolkien or Robert E. Howard than it is by non-fantasy works, especially the 1960s British TV series The Avengers and the fiction of Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, Dorothy Dunnett, Rafael Sabatini, Alexandre Dumas père, Anthony Hope, George Barr McCutcheon, Baroness Orczy, and/or Anthony Trollope.

Fantasy of manners (FoM) is distinguished by precise, often elegant prose reminiscent of another era; sharp, mannered, sometimes witty dialogue; a heightened attention to social structure, roles, manners, and mores; an awareness of fashion and style; a focus on higher-caste characters; a reliance on dialogue and intrigue, more than action, to move the story forward; a greater focus on internal foes (members of one’s own society and, often, one’s own class) than on external foes (invading armies, encroaching demons, etc.); an inclination to utilize urban settings; and a fictional time period bearing more resemblance to the Renaissance, Georgian, Regency, or Victorian era of Europe, than to a modern, medieval, or ancient time period of any continent.

In addition to Keller’s seminal article, 1991 saw the publication of two archetypal Fantasy of Manners novels:  Teresa Edgerton’s Goblin Moon and The Gnome’s Engine, which comprise the Goblin Moon Duology.  Regrettably, these novels were out of print for some years.  However, the first volume, Goblin Moon, has lately been reissued in print and eBook form.

What a difference two decades can make!  Today, the duology is being identified as “steampunk” and “gunpowder & alchemy.”  However, if you read Goblin Moon expecting either steampunk tropes and trappings, or a post-medieval spin on sword and sorcery, you are in for a big–and therefore potentially unpleasant–surprise.  However, if you go into Goblin Moon expecting, rather, a work more closely resembling a fantasy novel penned by Georgette Heyer or Rafael Sabatini, your expectations will be considerably closer to the mark.

Given all this, you may be surprised to discover that Goblin Moon’s opening scene features a pair of poverty-stricken river scavengers finding a coffin and selling its eerie contents to a one-time alchemist.  Despite this first impression, you haven’t wandered into a dark fantasy novel.  Goblin Moon is firmly Fantasy of Manners.

From the novel’s first words, elements of language and details of dress reveal a decided resemblance between Goblin Moon’s fictional time period and our Georgian era.  But there are differences, and they’re major.  Edgerton’s secondary world has working magic; nonhuman races as well as human; and a moon which moves much closer to its world as it waxes, and much farther away as it wanes.  While this world has numerous nations and at least three continents, the action unfolds almost entirely within the borders of Waldermark, which resembles a German principality of our Eighteenth Century.  Other nations and continents are suggestive of Spain, Scandinavia, Russia, Austria, India, and North America.

Given the existence of non-“European” lands and nonhuman characters, readers might expect the capitol of Waldermark to number non-white humans among the dwarf, gnome, hobgoblin, fairy, and white human citizens.  However, the few darker-skinned humans are either foreigners in Waldermark, or inhabitants of distant Ynde, who keep whites abducted from Waldermark and other nations of Euterpe as their slaves (meanwhile, the people of Waldermark, like Georgian-era Germans, don’t keep black slaves).  FoM’s largely-white casts aroused little comment in 1991, but this aspect of Goblin Moon will appear odd to many fans of more recent vintage.  It is to be hoped that the rumored third novel in the Goblin Moon series will break with this particular pattern, while retaining Goblin Moon’s many strengths.

What are these strengths?  The prose is skillfully wrought, suggesting the formality of an earlier era, while maintaining the faster and more fluid pacing enjoyed by modern readers.  The plot is intricate, and takes several unpredictable twists and turns as its subplots follow the activities of numerous interesting and sympathetic characters.  These characters include (but are not limited to) the old river scavenger, Caleb Braun, and his one-time employer, the fallen gentleman Gottfried Jenk, whose collaborative descent into forbidden byways of alchemy and necromantic revival of an olden wizard drive much of the story; the scheming part-fairy Duchess of Zar-Wildungen, Marella Carleon, whose great beauty and generosity disguise her ruthless attempts to destroy an unsuspecting woman and gain the sinister secrets uncovered by Jenk and Braun; Braun’s grandnephew, Jed, who ascends to respectable employment at a dwarven bottleworks and troubling entanglement in the magical machinations of a secret guild; his friends, Jenk’s loyal granddaughter Sera and her ailing cousin Elsie, who become entangled in quackery, unguessed-at conspiracies, trollish snares, and budding romance; and Lord Skelbrooke, a gun-toting Imbrian poet, dandy, conspirator, and addict, whose secret deeds and intrigues set his path crossing and recrossing the paths of everyone else, especially the alluring yet aloof Sera.  Plainly, the subplots grow numerous; but they are clear and absorbing, and they converge in a conclusion which satisfactory resolves the main storylines, yet leaves readers eager for the sequel.

Last but not least among the strengths of Goblin Moon is the terrific world-building.  Edgerton develops her setting in convincing detail and fascinating depth, without providing so much information that readers become confused or bored.  Wisely, she often makes her details aspects of one another:  for example, the religions and folkways of her world incorporate the unique behavior of its elliptically orbiting moon, the modern religion incorporates the nine seasons, and the seasons and the moon influence what is available in the markets, where the wealthy reside, and what festivals and ceremonies are observed.  These elements shape and influence the inborn nature of each character, resulting in behaviors and motivations that are often unique to this world.  If the primary goal of a fantasy novel is to tell a story that could take place only within its pages, Goblin Moon succeeds smashingly.

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1 Comment

  1. And there I thought I was the only one whoever read this book. I bought it when I was young based on the cover art and title. I enjoyed the book. My lasting impression from it after all these years is the intricate detail of the fashion.

    A book worth adding to your reading list.

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