Review: Orcs by Stan Nicholls


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.

orcsOrcs 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.

12 replies »

  1. I’m not a fantasy genre reader, but i wonder if Lord of the Rings set the bar too high for any other author to ever get over it again.

    If i understand the history of LotR correctly, Tolkien didn’t really set out to write the story so much as the story grew around his hobby of inventing languages. That all the languages are fully functioning lends a depth to the story…even if you don’t bother learning the languages. And i would imagine that the attention to language went hand in hand with his attention developing the myths/stories of the individual groups within LotR. Which led to the world he created being so deep that it takes very little suspension of disbelief; it feels real because it is real…if imaginary.

    And writing wasn’t even his day job.

  2. Now these are the Orcs from the Ring and Tokien, right? I was looking at Amazon and none of the publishers’ or readers’ reviews make that entirely clear.

    If so, that’s almost 800 pages of bad teeth and even worse hygiene.

  3. Russ —

    These are not LotR orcs. Different fantasy world altogether. As Lex suggested, I, like a lot of others, tend to use LotR for comparison purposes, and that might not be entirely fair.

    — C

  4. There a number of universes outside fantasy that equal Tolkien’s own. The galaxy of Asimov’s Foundation and Robots novels comes to mind, as does the Empire of Herbert’s Dune.

    But it depends on what you’re reading for, too. Tolkien lovers love the world – the plot is exciting, but pretty standard adventure fare these days, and his characterization is kinda flat in many ways. I reread LotR for Middle Earth, not for following how Frodo, Gandalf, et al. develop as characters from the beginning to the end. If I want that, I don’t read Tolkien, I read Stephan R. Donaldson (the Gap series, since I haven’t read his fantasy stuff) or Kim Stanley Robinson or Asimov.

    • Brian, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but there aren’t any fantasy universes I’ve come across that match Tolkien’s. Dune started well, but after a couple books devolved into obscure political philosphy navel-gazing. The hard SF folks were more about trying to imagine technical plausibility than they were living, breathing, organic cultures. This is why cyberpunk was so vital when it came along in the ’80s.

      Donaldson’s White Gold Wielder world wasn’t bad, but it was hardly up to Tolkien’s standards.

      Although I should add that few writers have ever match Rand for sheer fantasy of vision….

  5. I agree that the hard SF folks aren’t generally about building deep worlds. I’m not a hard SF guy in general – I’d rather read a great story than one that’s strictly real, and too many of the hard SF writers are, as you say, more interested in reality than in a good story. Gregory Benford is one of those – his world is strictly hard, and some of his work is great (Across the Sea of Stars, Great Sky River for example), but when he focused too much on the physics and let the world and characterization fade in his later Galactic Center novels, I lost interest.

    As for the universe of Dune, are you comparing Tolkien’s entire world (a la the later novels like the Silmarilian) to the entire body of Dune, or are you comparing the first 2-3 novels in the Dune series to the LotR? Because the Silmarilian and it’s like are flat-out unreadable.

    • I’m talking about the trilogy + The Hobbit, pretty much. The rest of the stuff was tedious, I agree. Although I’d argue a fine point – that tediousness was more about the writing, as opposed to Herbert, where the navel-gazing sort of BECAME the world.

  6. Fair enough, since that’s what I was talking about too.

    There is a lot of depth to Middle Earth that isn’t scratched in the four main novels, while there’s less depth that’s better explored in the first 3 Dune novels (IMO).

    I’ve had people tell me that the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are deep like Tolkien, but as I’ve never read the novels, I can’t say. When I’m writing my own stories, though, I spend a LOT of time creating the world, and that’s probably because I’ve loved deep and rich settings for the books I’ve read. I’ll never try to create my own language, however. Some things you need to be an expert to pull off.

  7. I thought Herbert’s Dune series had a pretty well-developed world, although I agree with Sam that there got to be far too much navel gazing. On a somewhat different note, I thought Richard Adams did a pretty successful job creating a world with Watership Down.

  8. While the Covenant books are pretty amazing, because the main charecter is such an… unsavory individual the impact isnt the same, the series is more cerebral about the man himself. The best fantasy series I’ve read any time recently that might be on the level of LOTR is the song of ice and fire series by George R.R. Martin. Its been painful waiting for the books (the first one came out in 96, and there have been wait times of years between books) but they are what Id consider so epic that so far it has been worth the wait. They differ on various levels from the LOTR series, but like LOTR they are a series of books I’ll pick up and reread every few years, which for me is extremely rare.

  9. i was actually pretty cool with the book in general – as I was after some mindless escapism, which I got in spades. My big gripe is that the ending was like whaaaa? It was a pity to end a pretty darn entertaining series with a weird bunch of events that felt like I was starting the book again. But the fighting scenes were sweet.

  10. The orcs books go much farther than the first three in that set. So yeah he is actually kind of starting over. That was just kind of an intro to the orcs to get you attached to them and their personalities.