Orcs by Stan Nicholls is too much of a good thing. Perhaps because the book is a promotional tool as much as a literary experience.
Orcs contains three of Nicholls’ novels, Bodyguard of Lightning, Legion of Thunder, and Warriors of the Tempest, packaged together into a handsome bundle that’s currently being pushed at the major book chains in advance of the 2009 release of Nicholls’ next round of Orc books. Orcs also contains a short story that serves as a prequel to the novels, plus a lengthy author interview.
My plan was to read one of the three novels in the omnibus, go on to something else, then come back to the other pieces at some undetermined point in the future.
The Orcs had other ideas.
What I didn’t realize is that the novels are three separate novels the same way The Lord of the Rings is three “separate” novels. It’s all the same story, just divided into multiple volumes. So, once I read the first, and it ended with a series of cliffhangers, I was pretty much committed to the whole damn thing.
Fortunately, Orcs was easy reading, and I had a huge chunk of time, so I dove in and spent a few days of my holiday break in Nicholls’ world of Maras-Dantia.
I’m not sure anyone needs to commit that kind of time all at once to Nicholls’ work, though.
The Orc books have garnered a lot of attention since Nicholls published the first in 1999, and they’ve become quite a hit among fanboys (and fangirls) of the fantasy set.
The writing itself is good. While Nicholls is no literary master, there is efficient competence to his prose. Best of all, his action scenes are excellent, and he keeps ‘em coming. There is, literally, never a dull moment. It’s two-fisted sword action all the way through.
For 769 pages.
The three novels basically comprise of one episode after another after another, with only the thinnest plotline tying them together. A band of warrior orcs breaks ranks from the service of their evil queen to go on a quest to gather five mystic totems. No one knows what the totems do. No one knows where they are. The orcs themselves happen to stumble upon enough clues so that when they find one totem they also suddenly (and conveniently) learn where another one might be.
In this fashion, Nicholls strings together a series of adventures—interspersed with plenty of random outbreaks of violence—to create entertaining escapism. But 769 pages of it was a bit much, and strung together as the three novels were, the anticlimactic ending felt rushed and unfulfilling.
The world of Maras-Dantia that Nicholls creates is pretty interesting, and he peoples it with lots of interesting things—dragon riders, a kingdom of trolls, a war between nyadds and merefolk—but this is not a world of rich textures and long history like, say, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Everything serves as exotic backdrop for the Orcs to fight and hack and slash and fight some more.
It doesn’t seem like this foreign land is very big, either. Horsemen traverse it in two or three days. The geographic scale seems underwhelming—just like the entire omnibus.
There’s also a not-so-hidden environmentalist agenda to the book: humans are despoiling their world, wrecking environmental havoc and making life miserable for all the world’s other inhabitants. That’s a huge theme running throughout the book.
Orcs made an entertaining diversion, but it was too much of an entertaining thing. By the end of the book, I had long been ready to be done, and I was grateful when it finally was.