Round 2, Match 2: The Goblin Wood vs. Jellicoe Road

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Judged by Andrée • Find her on Goodreads


For whatever reason, it feels like there are a fair number of polarizing battles this time around. Maybe I’m wrong, and it’s no different than previous years, but it does seem to me that there have been more than a couple of battles where it wasn’t even close. This is one of them.

Unexpectedly, Jellicoe Road and The Goblin Wood are weirdly similar. I know (I know), but they kind of are. They’re both pretty much lightning rods of tragedy, they both feature stubborn and isolated heroines who are determined to go it alone, and they’re both very meticulously structured – though I’d argue that Goblin Road contains two stories running in parallel, while in Jellicoe Road the stories run in parallel, before converging and coming full circle. I was really impressed with the plotting of both. They’re both extremely well laid out.

The Goblin Wood is fast-paced and very clever. As I mentioned, it tells two simultaneous stories. The first is Makenna’s, who after witnessing her mother’s murder, becomes the saviour of the goblins against a common enemy. She just wants to create a safe place for them all. She’s clever and resourceful and tough, and absolutely devoted to protecting those who depend on her from the powerful priests who view their very existence as a threat. Makenna is a great character – a brilliant tactician, but also a bit cold and closed off to all humanity because of her responsibilities and how cruelly she’s been hurt in the past. She’s allied herself with the goblins, and is determined to save them, even if it means hurting (or killing) a few human settlers along the way.

And then there’s Tobin, a disgraced knight who falsely confesses to crimes he did not commit to save his brother’s life. His only chance at salvation is to kill Makenna, because the safe place she’s building for her goblins is also the only safe place for Tobin’s people, who are in turn desperately defending themselves against barbarians further south. The reality is that there isn’t enough land. The book provides perspectives from both sides of the planned invasion, and demonstrates that while Tobin and his people are invading the goblin wood, they themselves are also being invaded and (like the goblins) are just trying to find a safe pace. You understand both characters’ choices and why they make them every step of the way, as they both struggle with how far they’ll go to protect those they love. The parallel structure is interesting, and one of the strengths of the book.

Jellicoe Road is harder to describe. Like Makenna, Taylor, the protagonist, has had some truly terrible things happen in her past. Her father’s dead; her absentee mother’s a drug addict; her childhood memories are fragmented, and she doesn’t really trust anyone enough to let them get close to her (not the girls in her House at school, not her guardian, not anyone). And to top things off, she’s essentially appointed general in the “territory wars” between the kids from her school, the local Townies and the Cadets. In much the same way that Makenna is the Goblin’s general, Taylor’s students are her responsibility. Of course (it is YA after all), she also shares an intense past experience with the leader of the Cadets, Jonah Griggs. But Taylor’s isn’t the only story going on – her story is profoundly affected by what happened at the school 20 years earlier.

Jellicoe Road isn’t a perfect book. As Roslyn said in her review, you do wonder about some of the choices the adults in Taylor’s life make to keep her so in the dark. Plus, the reader is dumped in the world with no warning, or explanation, and while it’s 95% effective, sometimes at the start I had trouble figuring out who people were. I especially had trouble keeping the characters in the flashbacks straight. The flashbacks feature a group of five close friends, but they’re also fairly short in length, so I think I never really figured out exactly who was who until 100+ pages in (and even then not all the time).

Jellicoe Road is a book with a lot of characters, and most of them have absolutely heaps of personal trauma. The school itself is clearly a place where a lot of troubled kids, or kids with nowhere else to go, find a community. I meant it when I said both books are lightning rods of tragedy. But Jellicoe Road (magically) manages to tell the stories of its characters without becoming soul-numbingly depressing. It’s emotional; the reader invests and empathizes, but I never felt like I was, I don’t know, drowning in teenage angst. The book just tells the story of its characters. It captures their stubbornness, their humanity, their anger, and their loyalty. And if it shows you the cruelty in the world, it shows you the good in people to.

I think that’s where Goblin Wood falls down for me. It’s really, really cleverly plotted, and there are so many things about it that objectively I should have loved (fun fantasy premise, strong female lead, PARALLELS, Cogswhallop becoming Makenna’s deputy, etc.). But my expectations going into this battle were completely overset. Unlike a lot of people, I would have expected to be biased in favour of MG fantasy (lack of romance isn’t an issue in that genre for me) over potentially overwrought teen angst. Goblin Wood is not a bad book by any means, but I didn’t enjoy reading it. I found it upsetting, and not in an effective way. Maybe I need a bit of light mixed in with my tragedy, or maybe I just need a slower build. Goblin Wood (I assume for suspense-building reasons) bounces from crisis to crisis, pinging back and forth between the two main characters and their drama, without pausing for breath. It felt like the characters were constantly in impossible situations.  I was stressed out reading it. I needed the narrative to breathe. I needed the relationships to be given time to feel real. I buy the individual growth of each character, but I don’t buy the growth of their relationships.

Tobin sacrificed everything for his brother, but paradoxically I never got the impression that they were that close based on their (brief) interactions. And given that one of the main points of Makenna’s narrative is her realizing that she doesn’t always need to go it alone, I think it’s a problem that I don’t buy Tobin’s final decision where she’s concerned. I needed them to interact more.  And I expected a book about goblins to be just a bit more… fun. Instead, it’s dark and full of tragedy. And the sadness, while making me anxious, also didn’t resonate with me. It felt superficial. I think I agree with the people who commented after the first round that they wanted it to be almost more YA. I think the book is at times missing the depth that it might sometimes need given the subject matter.

In contrast, Taylor slowly letting people into her life was beautifully done. All of the relationships felt genuine, and all of them are constantly in flux (as real relationships often are). I feel like Jellicoe Road is a very emotionally true novel (mild spoilers ahead for the rest of the paragraph). I actually disagree with Roslyn about the degree to which Taylor’s past experiences are hidden from her and its plausibility. While I don’t necessarily think it’s a justifiable as a course of action, I really feel like I understand the character who would do it, the same woman who as a little girl sat perfectly still for hours so that her baby brother didn’t have to see his adored mother dead.

Jellicoe Road isn’t a novel that had me sending a frantic private message to Beth because I was completely emotionally overset, but it is a novel that I will love quietly, about a community and a family I will remember. I really, really enjoyed everything about it. I choose Jellicoe Road, no contest.


Congratulations to Jellicoe Road, which moves on to round 3!

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19 thoughts on “Round 2, Match 2: The Goblin Wood vs. Jellicoe Road

  1. YOU ARE NOT SHUNNED AT ALL!

    And whooooa, thanks for putting into words why Goblin Wood didn’t work for me. There is so much good to the plot, the setup, the characters . . . but it never got me invested or made me feel.

    1. Excellent (I wondered if I might not be given my choice). I would have shunned you acter la st round, bit that seemed unfair given that I have read neither book. 🙂

      I wanted to like Goblin Wood so much! But nope.

      My pretty, pretty Jellicoe though.

        1. Don’t really have the time right now, but perhaps at a later date…

          Out of curiosity, did you think I’d go the other way then? (I don’t blame you, I did going in, and having read neither.)

          1. I wasn’t sure! Mostly, it’s just that I love Jellicoe SO MUCH, but it’s a odd kind of book, so I always brace myself for people to go, “Nope, not for me.”

            That said, I just checked GoodReads and nearly all of my friends have liked it! So maybe it’s one of those where my brain has translated my friends’ four star reviews into THEY HATED IT.

            1. It’s just such a hard book to describe. I feel like I’ve read so many descriptions and yet was still completely surprised by it. I don’t know how to describe it. Though I won’t be giving it four stars. 🙂

              Also, I forgot to put it in my review, but I love how the territory wars are totally a serious thing. Right up until the teenagers involved get over themselves, forget to be enemies, and become friends. So great. Love love love love love.

                1. Speaking of your books from last round, am very confused about the Crown Duel situation. I get that the two books are now one book, but what’s this about alternate POVs and prequels and such? If I were to read the book, what edition should I even read. Am confused.

                  1. Definitely start with Crown Duel, and either buy a paperback with the cover you see here, or buy an ebook, which only exists with both titles combined.

                    Not sure about the alternate POVs – I know the author has written stuff on her blog? – but there’s also a prequel title called A Stranger to Command that I enjoyed a LOT.

  2. You know I love this entire piece, but this – this is seriously the high point:

    I know (I know),

    OH HOW I LOVED THAT.

    Tobin’s story IS really dark, isn’t it? I’d never thought of it that way before. Even more so than Makenna’s to me, because her story is a little more familiar. I’ve read stories with characters in the same position as her. Tobin’s was a little more unique. When I realized they all really had no choice but to fight it out for that same little piece of land –

    The thing I loved most about this book was that I walked away wondering if the barbarians, too, had a perfectly reasonable explanation to fight. I think that’s a great depiction of nuance and depth. I wish it had worked more for you!

    1. Yeah, I finished them and thought, “Wow, those were awfully similar.” Then there was this pause of POSSIBLY ONLY TO YOU ANDRÉE HAVE FUN EXPLAINING THIS ONE. I did feel the need to acknowledge that on the surface, it;s a ridiculous thing to say.

      They’re both really dark. Tobin’s was more, “Oh look! A convergence of injustices!” Really couldn’t stand his entire family, to be honest.

      Don’t they say the barbarians are moving north due to drought? My reading is that we are not supposed to be sympathetic to them, however, because they are cannibals.

      I was frustrated reading it, because I wanted it to work as I was reading it, because I could see the parallels unfolding obectively. Perhaps if I’d been in a different mood the week I read it.

  3. I think I can agree that the silence of the character to whom you allude (trying to avoid spoilers here!) is behaving ‘in character’ – i.e. it’s plausible in terms of her past. In any case the ‘silence’ issue was certainly not a deal-breaker for me (obviously, or I wouldn’t have chosen the book). It was more that I was wondering ‘Hmm …I wonder if this is plausible?’ so thanks for helping me to understand why it wasn’t in fact a deal-breaker!

    1. Yeah, I was reading it and on the one hand was annoyed by the silence, because honestly it’s not a great plan, but on the other hand kept thinking, “But i completely get why you are doing this.” In another book, with another character, it might have been a deal breaker? I don’t know, I just felt like I really understood all the characters, and they were all so consistent. The characterization is really so excellent in this. I think it’s why I love it as I do.

  4. Yes. It does seem at first like a rather cruel thing to do to a kid who’s already been traumatised – not very smart, really – but the book does make it so clear that it was done with the very best of intentions and for reasons that are consistent with the characters and their history. So I agree that the characterisation is what prevented the silence issue from being a deal breaker and that the characterisation is one of the things that makes the book special. I really do love this book and am really glad it’s going through, despite the fact that I haven’t yet read Goblin Wood. From what you’ve written it doesn’t really sound like something I’d really love, though.

    1. It’s hard to say whether you’d like Goblin Wood. I do think your mood makes a difference. The book almost got there for me, but something crucial was missing in the writing.

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