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.