by Mary Gentle
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Although Mary Gentle begins her novel, Grunts with a clever premise: a band of orcs who must survive in the post-evil world, the humorous situations she chooses to illustrate are based more on the anachronistic stockpile of modern weaponry and the methodology of modern marines than from the orcs actually trying to make their way in the new world. Apparently, this is a more difficult situation to carry out since Gentle's work is the second recent example of this type of novel which fails to achieve its goal, the other attempt being Eve Forward's debut novel, Villains By Necessity.
Gentle manages to avoid one of the traps that Forward fell into. While Forward's villains are clearly based on role-playing archetypes, Gentle steers clear of that to base her orcs on Tolkienesque creatures, although her hobbit analogs carry the role-playing "halfling" name.
At the center of Gentle's novel are Ashnak of the Fighting Agaku, a typical orc, and the Brandiman Brothers, Ned and Will,two halfling thieves. Sent on a mission to steal a dragon's treasure, the Brandiman's leave their orc comrades for dead and decide to sell the nameless necromancer out to the forces of good. Surviving the destruction of the dragon's lair, Ashnak returns to the evil fortress of Nin-Edin with his band of orcs and a collection of weapons which would make many third world nations proud. Gentle never explains where the orcs learned their marine discipline. Even with their advanced firepower, Ashnak and company are unable to hold off the destruction of evil and find themselves living in a new world.
Unfortunately, Gentle's humor is too one-dimensional to carry a book of this length. Most of the book, as previously mentioned, is based on the idea of anachronistic weapons, mentalities and tactics in a pseudo-medieval world, a form of humor which Terry Pratchett does much better and which, in any event, has been done too often (both intentionally and unintentionally) in fantasy novels. Gentle does pay tribute to Pratchett when the Brandimans must break into the Wizard's university: Visibile College.
Cruel and vicious, but showing more intelligence and compassion than one might expect from orcs, Gentle's creatures have bodies which seem as resiliant as a rubber ball. Her inability, however, to draw any real distinctions between the races: orcs, humans, elves and halflings, can only be seen as a failure. Gentle does not write with a racial voice for any of her characters and a marine orc could easily be an elf or dwarf based on their dialogue. By depicting the orcs as an elite military unit, Gentle may be making a statement about the militaristic aspects of our own society, however she undermines her position by making the more cultured groups just as intent on destruction as Ashnak and his followers.
Another source of humor seems to be the introduction of reasonably graphic sex scenes, many of an S&M or bondage nature. Although a couple of these scenes work, particularly the Brandimans' first visit to a brothel, they become old very quickly and really don't add that much in the way of humor to the book.
Gentle's prose can also use polishing. There are several points in the novel where it is unclear what exactly has happened or to whom and the reader is required to either re-read sections (sometimes still not quite seeing what happened) or continue the book with the assumption that whatever they missed was not important.
By its very nature, this type of book must be a parody of the high fantasy elements it incorporates. Unfortunately, while writing an enjoyable book, Gentle is not entirely able to pull off the parodic or satiric elements which are necessary to make the novel a complete success. The humor which Gentle does use tends to be the type which makes the reader smile rather than laugh out loud, but a satire should cause the reader to think a little more than Gentle's book does.
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