always enjoy a story that takes me to the other side of an issue, where I can see things from a different point of view. In Grunts, Mary Gentle does just that, placing us with a squad of orcs in a fantasy world lifted from Tolkien. Ashnak (the captain) and their brood are hapless underlings. And here’s that POV-switch I’d mentioned; did you ever wonder what it’s like one the other side when the battle breaks for the heroes, when the orc lines collapse, when evil streams in raw panic from the field? So here these guys are up in the lines, and suddenly the evil supporting mages are elsewhere, they’re getting slaughtered, and the Ultimate Darkness is distracted with other things. You could actually feel sorry for them.
And who knows what their survivability would have been had Ashnak and his crew had not found a dragon’s cache loaded with gold (of course) and strange items from other worlds. Specifically, a complete armory of a US Marine division (at least). But the strange thing about treasures – they are cursed in that they alter their bearers to fit to the weapons. And now those same orcs are actually talking, drilling, and fighting like Marines! Of course, since Pliny referred to orcs as “marine monsters”, it’s not hard to see where the idea came from.
It’s an odd book from that point on. Sure, it’s funny to see orcs doing all those Marine things, but the story wanders a bit, never quiet certain of what it is to be. Two halfling thief brothers are introduced but as they slaughter an innocent family early on, it’s hard to side with them. But then again, the orcs hamstring a young girl (who hides in a pile of dead). Since she’s a loose end, when they do find her again, they simply eat her. So who am I rooting for?
And that’s the thing – the novel never does settle into a true purpose. Who are the heroes? What is the overall plot arc? What’s the entire point of this? Sure, there are a lot of funny lines in this (“I love the smell of Greek fire in the morning…”) but that’s pretty thin ice, story-telling-wise.
So yes, it was amusing, but like orcs feasting on bodies, I was looking for a little more backbone.