The Good, the Bad, and the Smug is the fourth novel in Tom Holt’s YOUSPACE series, following in the footsteps of Doughnut, When It’s a Jar, and The Outsourcerer’s Apprentice. Like those previous books, this one can be read as a stand-alone; there were recurring characters and running jokes which were enjoyable to this first-time reader, but which I suspect would have made more sense had I been more familiar with the rest of the series. Still, The Good, the Bad, and the Smug is a very pleasant way to spend a few afternoons.
Goblin King Mordak is shaking up the status quo with his kinder, more socialist, “humanitarian” brand of evil. (Working title: New Evil.) He’s got big plans for the Tolkienesque fantasy world that he lives in, and part of which means buying up all of the elf-run newspapers, effectively putting most of the elf population out of work. Efluviel, a former writer for the Beautiful Golden Face (now the Horrible Yellow Face), is offered a new job: goblins are going missing and humans are suddenly flush with cash, so Mordak wants her to use her impressive investigative journalism skills to find out what’s happening. In exchange, he’ll make her the Editor-in-Chief of the Face.
Meanwhile, one of those vanished goblins has mysteriously appeared in a parallel universe which would appear to be our own. Newly dubbed “Archie” and somehow transmuted into human form, he makes his way down to New Zealand, where packs of goblins are finding steady work as movie extras. After meeting “Kurt,” a goblin-turned-movie star, and “Shawna,” an elf who works as Kurt’s personal assistant, Archie starts wondering how and why any of this is possible. And in the dark forests of Mordak’s realm, a mysterious little man spins straw into gold with his magic spinning wheel and offers economic advice to the human princes who seek his aid.
Attentive readers who are also fans of J.R.R. Tolkien will pick up on many small details in The Good, the Bad, and the Smug: the Dwarven King Drain living under a mountain, the unnamed horror lurking in Pirith Undrod, the elves living in the forests of Snorien, and the incorporeal but very angry Dark Lord Vorgul are all extremely familiar. The plot also follows the expected beats of a quest novel: characters who begin as mortal enemies experience hardship and triumph, and eventually, come to a mutually beneficial understanding. There isn’t much tension or a sense of high stakes, but Holt’s creativity within that framework prevents the novel from becoming tiresome.
Holt’s style reminds me in all the best ways of writers like Douglas Adams, Christopher Moore, Terry Pratchett, and Kurt Vonnegut. He cleverly satirizes current events in a vaguely ridiculous and over-the-top way which frequently had me chuckling as I read. The Academy of Darkness Awards ceremony, held on Samhain Eve, shows that Evil life is just as mundane and silly as any celebration of celebrity. An early scene in which desperate freelance proofreaders line up at the gates of the Face, begging for a single manuscript to look over or holding cardboard signs which read Will Copy-Edit for Food, is just a meat-space version of what it really can be like to scour the Internet for that type of work. And there’s a really interesting-sounding restaurant, The Old Giant’s Head, which perfectly displays the goblin mentality of “waste note, want not.”
Fundamentally, The Good, the Bad, and the Smug is a novel which explores the perceptions of Good and Evil, and whether one’s intentions can affect the result of one’s actions. Good, Evil, Optimism, and Happiness are finite, known quantities, rather like the element of Surprise in Pratchett’s DISCWORLD universe. So, if a Good thing is done for Evil reasons, what is the net balance for the universe? If a supposedly Evil person does Good for others while calling it Evil, how does it all shake out? As Archie, Efluviel, and Mordak learn, this balance is both crucial and quite precarious, and must be maintained diligently.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began reading this novel; satire can be difficult to write well, and a chatty, humorous style can become grating and overbearing. Luckily, The Good, the Bad, and the Smug avoided those pitfalls, and I enjoyed it from beginning to end. I’ve already recommended this book to friends of mine, and will make a point of seeking out Holt’s other YOUSPACE novels in the future.