Sunday, October 31, 2010

Orcs by Stan Nicholls

Orcs by Stan Nicholls is a fairly straightforward sword and sorcery novel. That becomes the central problem as well. Orcs is sold as something different, a breath of fresh air. The central conceit is that the story is told from the perspective of the orcs. This sounds incredibly exciting but starts to fall apart immediately as the novel retreats into the tried and true.

The novel is set in the fictional world of Maras Dantia/Centralia depending on whose perspective you are reading from. The world is racially rich with everything from centaurs to trolls. The world is also dying. The why of it centers around humans destroying the delicate balance of nature. Humans who well up from the southern reaches like a plague of locusts, devouring the magic of the land and disrupting the lives of the elder races. Humans who have destroyed their homeland and now flee to new land for a new start. The setting is dramatic to say the least.

The story is largely told from the perspective of Stryke, the leader of an orc war-band. Stryke’s war-band is owned by Jennesta a half breed sorceress who is quickly identified as an evil tyrant. The story opens with Stryke’s team finishing up an assault on a human outpost. Their job was to retrieve a magical trinket or as it is called in the story, a “star”. En route to home base Stryke’s team is way laid by kobolds who steal the “star” and take of for their main encampment. Through a series of events and misunderstandings, Stryke is labeled a traitor by Jennesta. This sets off the main story.

Long story short Stryke finds out that there are more of these “stars” and that they have a hidden history; a history steeped in magic. So Stryke sets off to find the “stars” so as to barter his way back into Jennesta’s good graces. Along the way he starts a lot of fights, makes a lot of enemies and is chased by Jennesta relentlessly.

At this point, the plot basically goes on sabbatical. As you read through the next several hundred pages, the plot never advances. Stryke just collects “stars”. He rides from one place to next killing things. You get occasional hints of bigger things, but nothing materializes until the final pages of the book.

This is where I find myself torn in opinion. If Orcs hadn’t be sold as “something different”, I would have a generally positive opinion of the book. Orcs is a perfectly good sword and sorcery book. In fact I would call it one of my favorite books of that genre in recent memory. The problem is that the books sells itself on the “conceit” of how orcs save the world. This of course is playing on the Tolkienesque stereotype of the orc; a brutish semi-intellegent berserker.

Instead, the orcs of Orcs at best come across as a noble savage. At worse, they are simply humans with a few linguistic oddities. That to me is heartbreaking. The fact that the orcs seldom appear to be anything other than a different nationality of humans renders the primary selling point of the book as a complete failure to me.

Also a failure to me is the attempt at a ecological message. The opening of the book is framed with humans despoiling the land. That is about as far as the message goes. To let this theme just dangle without meaningful resolution when it is so relevant to many readers is a complete failure as well.

Another oddity in the book is the ending. While you spend the first six hundred odd pages reading a good sword and sorcery book with a few “mysterious” elements that hint and bigger things, the ending is an abrupt change in course. The last one hundred pages suddenly switch over to a high fantasy setting. Where as plot was no where to be found early on the last hundred pages are packed. There are twist and turns, surprises and revelations to be found on every page. The ending is satisfying if in-congruent with the marketing language on the rear cover of the book.

So, I am torn. Orcs at its core is a good book. The dialog is fun, the action abounds and there are plenty of sights to be seen. Orcs is a solid sword and sorcery book. But, I feel that it falls on its face with the whole orc conceit. At no point did I feel that I was reading something other than the viewpoint of a human. The orcs didn’t even seem different from the humans in the book which is all the more damning. Especially damning when you take into account the text found in bold and all caps on the rear cover of the book: “THIS BOOK WILL CHANGE THE WAY YOU FEEL ABOUT ORCS FOREVER.” Compounding this is the failure to expand on the environmental theme. Lastly, why so much plot was saved until the final of the moments of the book I do not understand. The last hundred pages show that Orcs could have been a radically different book.

Orcs is ultimately a good book that fails to live up to its promise. It is hard to ignore the potential this book had. It was trying to do something new but failed. The bitterness of that failure taints the sweetness of the underlying story craft on display. But, I am glad Stan Nicholls tried.

Hachette: Orcs by Stan Nichols
Image Source: Hachette
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-0316033701

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