'Orcs' by Stan Nicholls

I've just finished reading 'Orcs', a trilogy by Stan Nicholls.

Orcs is billed as something completely different; it's epic fantasy told from the point of view of a band of orcs, who are the heroes of the story. Apparently, this is very unusual, even innovative. Now, I don't read a lot of fantasy so it's very hard for me to judge how Orcs compares to the rest of the genre. But my basic feeling on Orcs is: wow. How can I possibly do this book justice? I can't, I'm sure. But I shall do my best.

Let's start at the beginning. Let's start with the front cover. I like the front cover. It's kind of classy; no pictures of ragged bands of heroes engaged in sword battles with busty maidens here. No dragons, no magic staffs. Just a picture of an orc's… what is it? A skull? A helmet? I don't know what it is, exactly. But it looks cool. Then, on the back, we have some blurb. The blurb begins as follows: "Look at me. Look at the orc." Hmm. "There is fear and hatred in your eyes," it continues. "To you I am a monster, a skulker in the shadows, a fiend to scare your children with. A creature to be slaughtered like a beast in the fields." And so on. That sounds pretty lame to me, but what do I know? The blurb concludes with: "This book will change the way you feel about orcs forever." Then come the quotes from the many (presumably) glowing reviews, which tell us that the book is "quick, fast, dirty, very funny and often surreal" (Jon Courtenay Grimwood, the Guardian); "excellent fantasy with a twist" (SFX); and "a wonderful piece of storytelling" (Tom Holt). I don't know who most of those people are, but presumably they know a lot more than me about the fantasy genre. Going by what they say, it's pretty obvious that we should be in for a treat. So, with the cover out of the way, let's take a look inside.

The first thing I liked was the typeface. Also the paper. It's a lovely creamy-colour, giving excellent contrast with the black ink, making it very easy - even in low-light conditions! - to see the marks on the page, and to read the words. So top marks for presentation. Well done, Gollancz! That concludes the complimentary portion of my review.

My first impression of the actual story: This is a total pile of shit. Yes, I hated it. After just thirty pages, I'd had more than enough. I was all ready to put it down when I discovered that this book has sold over a million copies! Not only that, but the first two novels in the trilogy received nominations for 'Best Novel' at the 1999 British Fantasy Awards! I couldn't believe it. "Whoa," I thought. "Okay. I must be wrong. I guess it gets better." I resolved to plough on.

I'm glad I did, because it does get better. It really does.

The thing about Orcs is that it's all about gritty fast paced action. It's all about story, see? Allow me to summarise the story:

In a land with a stupid name live all the standard fantasy races: orcs, dwarves, elves, trolls, humans, kobolds, and many others. If you've ever played D&D, you will immediately feel right at home.

In this land there is an evil queen called Jenesta who has magic power and likes to strap on a unicorn horn to rape people to death with. She likes to tear out their hearts and eat them, and she then pours their blood into a barrel and uses it as a scrying device. She's kinda sexy, but also looks a bit weird cos she's not entirely human. Anyway, the point is, she's more evil than any man could ever be. As everyone knows, when women go bad, they go very very bad. Well, Jenesta is even badder than that, okay? She's the worst.

The very evil Jenesta has sent a bunch of orcs to a castle to retrieve a McGuffin. These orcs are the heroes of the story. They begin by storming the castle, slaughtering its human occupants, and taking the McGuffin. (The battle goes on and on, and is supposed to be exciting and tense. It isn't. This is true of every single battle scene in the book, of which there are far too many.)

Anyway, the orcs get the McGuffin (which is sealed inside a cylinder to add to the mystery) and then celebrate by getting stoned on a substance called pellucid. They fall asleep and wake up late, and then suddenly remember how evil Jenesta is, and begin to worry that she will probably torture them all to death unless they bring her the McGuffin immediately. They start back to the castle, but in their haste they forget to take proper precautions against an ambush. Therefore, riding into a pass, they are ambushed by a band of kobolds. The kobolds steal the McGuffin and escape. From this point on, it is clear that the entire rest of the book will be a glorified McGuffin hunt.

The orcs catch up with the kobolds, kill some of them, and get the McGuffin back, at the same time rescuing a gremlin, who opens the cylinder and pulls out the little McGuffin together with a scroll which explains that the McGuffin is important, and that there are more of them scattered all throughout the land with the stupid name. The gremlin tells the orcs that if they get all of the little McGuffins together it will be a good thing for the orcs and everyone else, and that there might be another one of those McGuffins in a nearby town. The orcs reason that the best way to avoid torture by Jenesta is to go and fetch this other McGuffin. They ride off and kill lots more people and eventually get hold of the second McGuffin, and then they decide that Jenesta is so evil they should try to collect all the others too, because… well, they'll cross that bridge when they come to it. The next six hundred pages are devoted to descriptions of the orcs running around killing people and gradually collecting together all the little McGuffins. There are some minor plot twists which serve to drag out the story, but in the end, the orcs get all the McGuffins. (At no point did I doubt that they would achieve this goal. And at no point did I go five pages without shouting "For fuck's sake! Is this really it? Are you serious, dude? This sold a million copies? What is wrong with people, man? I fucking despair.")

With all the McGuffins in hand, the orcs save the world from everything bad by entering another dimension and finding out that the McGuffins were created by a wizard in order to save the world by opening a portal which leads to other worlds. For some reason, the wizard lost all the McGuffins a long time ago and couldn't find them, despite the fact that their locations are well-known to all sorts of random people whom the orcs happen to bump into in between killing people. It wasn't much of a plot to start with, but even so, Nicholls has managed to completely fuck it up. On that front alone, it's really a very impressive piece of work.

So the plot's shit. Okay. What about the writing?

The prose itself is workmanlike at best. It is uninspired, tedious, cliched, and repetitive, yet somehow it manages to flow pretty well, especially when I could let my eyes glaze over a bit and ignore as much of it as possible, which I did often. Many of the the words used to tell the story are used without regard to their actual meaning. They are, however, spelled correctly; about that, I cannot complain. (Again, big up Gollancz!). But the jokes are not funny. The beauty is not beautiful, the drama is undramatic (especially the battle scenes), and the dialogue is utterly devoid of surprises, stilted, and lame. Any attempt at characterisation is all but impossible to detect. Overall, the writing is very, very bad.

And yet it sold a million copies. And yet I finished reading it, this seven hundred page pile of shit. Why?

These are good questions. My best guess is that this book has sold so well because it is unchallenging on every possible level. It affects an air of edginess, while being incapable of offending anybody, or at least, any of the people who might actually consider reading it. It appeals to the widest possible market, and it starts from a fascinating and easy to understand premise: epic fantasy from the point of view of orcs. It's an easy sell, and an easy read.

And therein lies the lesson for budding fiction writers: publishing is a business, pure and simple. The publishing industry (like the music industry) couldn't care less about anything but money. They talk big about 'finding new talent' but that's really just a smokescreen; what they're looking for is something that will sell. And what sells best is, and always will be, complete and utter tripe. Like Jeffrey Archer, Stan Nicholls is a master of the genre, and Orcs provides a stunning demonstration of the paramount importance of mediocrity in modern fiction. Five stars to the marketing folks at Gollancz, but none for Stan. He'll just have to make do with a big pile of money.