I sell myself as a proponent of fiction by and about underrepresented groups, in order to gain their perspectives on something that I love. What better group, then, to read a book about than orcs?
Yes, we all know orcs. Anyone who’s seen LOTR knows orcs. They were cannon-fodder for most of the movie, jumping eagerly on Aragorn’s blade, or dancing into Legolas’ line of sight to be deftly picked off. Nicholls’ book touts itself as a closer and more personal look into the world of orcs, a look beyond what we as fantasy readers are all accustomed to.
Orcs starts out in the middle of a battle–and it’s a very well written battle. Humans are being cut and bludgeoned and shot full of arrows by a small and talented band of our heroes. The orcs win, then everything goes wrong. They abandon their tyrannical mistress and go on a quest for some supremely powerful artifacts, skipping intently from one part of the world–and one battle–to the other.
It’s an interesting and bold premise, and one with a lot of potential. Unfortunately, Nicholls only does a substandard job in telling the story of the orcs.
I tried a live review on Twitter, outlining a few of my more major arguments for and against the book. I will repeat those criticisms and praises here.
What was done well:
Fighting: Nicholls writes exceptional fight scenes, despite the bland prose and dry dialogue that exists throughout the rest of the novel. They’re vivid, violent, and as believable as they can be involving orcs. I have no problem imagining these orcs using teamwork to take down a pair of mechanical behemoths, or twenty orcs facing off against three times as many humans. He wrote the main character and his warband as extremely competent fighters, who are almost always aided by a larger than normal quantity of luck. I enjoy this. The battles are easily the most enjoyable portions of the book.
Maras-Dantia: Maras-Dantia is the world that Nicholls’ orcs rip and roar through, causing general havoc. Literally every fantasy race that one can think of exists in Maras-Dantia, coexisting and living under the shadow of the orcs’ mistress. Even though kobolds, trolls, and gremlins live in perpetual fear, each of them have their own culture and magic. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing centaurs and all other manner of fantastic creatures.
Unfortunately, these highs are brought down by some BIG lows.
What wasn’t done well:
The Orcs: I said on Twitter, when I was only one-third of the way through the book: “These orcs seem entirely too human, and not ‘a race born for combat’ like the author describes them.” I attributed this to how early I was in the story, and hoped that the orc-ness would come out later in the book. I was wrong. For 769 pages, I read about a group of orc-ish humans traveling through Maras-Dantia, on the run from their mistress and looking for ancient artifacts. There should have been a little more thought, a little more development was given to the orcs’ culture, making them different in some way from all the other sentient races in Maras-Dantia. Very little orc in Orcs, and I felt a little disappointed afterward.
Characterization: From the more-human-than-orc-orcs to the ubiquitous religious zealotry of the human characters in the book, each character that appears for more than two pages has one, no, maybe one and a half dimensions. The protagonist, Stryke, is a tough as nails orc officer, who is “the chosen orc” in the story. He’s a hard, but capable leader. Done. There’s a girl who likes to kill, an old orc that admonishes upholding of tradition, and I really wished that the dwarf and the hot-headed orc who argued the whole novel would have just gone ahead and gotten into a fist fight. Although the insults that they exchanged were occasionally funny, I would rather a fight because all the other fights were written so well.
The Quest: After going AWOL on an extremely powerful, ruthless and insane sorceress directly after a retrieval mission, the orcs find that the bauble they were sent to retrieve had world changing powers. What those powers were, exactly, aren’t revealed until about page 750. Remember, there are 769 pages. It takes some really awesome writing to keep the reader enthralled in that type of mystery for so long. It got a little ridiculous when the orcs would ask Stryke what their purpose was, and he wouldn’t really know, but they’d follow him anyway. That’s not all the way believable.
Despite hammering Orcs so hard, it is actually a solid book. The battles are acceptable, the prose isn’t terrible and there is enough comfortable content here for the reader to continue for 769 pages. I would have rather, however, been immersed in a totally foreign culture than read about one so similar to the norm.