Then...this must mean...
Oh, rejoice! Thy dreaded finals week has passed!
Bodyguard of Lightning by Stan Nicholls
On a scale of "Burn it" to "Best book ever! Erect monuments in its honor!" I put it at:
"A very-well written cliche. No one knows cliches more than Stan Nicholls."
It's also super gory and includes a rape scene. NC-17, people.
Book I of the "Orcs" trilogy.
You can also find it in here. It has a much more badass cover and all 3 books.
I did enjoy the book, and I'll probably read the rest of the series, if for no other reason than to solve the mysteries of the artifact and the villain's plan and the weird visions the main character keeps getting...
The story's about a band of orcs called the Wolverines--led by Stryke (the main character)--who are on a mission to bring an artifact to their queen. They don't know what it is, nor do they really care, until they get the artifact, and then lose it to a bunch of kobolds. Honest mistake, right? Unfortunately, the queen isn't exactly the forgiving sort. She's like the hardass professor who won't accept your twenty-page paper that you stayed up until 4am to write but simply forgot to print out because you were so sleep deprived and thus you fail the course (lucky for me, I don't have that professor :P). By the time they reclaim the artifact they know they're far too late to be spared the wrath of their queen. So they become outlaws.
The story has the unique concept of being set in a classic epic fantasy, but all the protagonists are orcs. It parallels modern racism and stigmas and has some interesting claims about religion (I get the feeling Stan Nicholls is anti-religion), and it also talks about the environment and how humans are completely screwing it up (I also get the feeling he's not a fan of humanity, either).
But there are some problems.
Number one (and those of you who regularly follow my blog probably already know what I'm about to say) is the lack of strong women.
Oh, there are very strong women here. The evil queen is one (more on that later). Coilla is another. She's a corporal in the band of orcs. She's also the only female orc we meet other than the queen, which means she's really only there as a token (and I pray that she doesn't get put in a relationship with Stryke, because that's the only cliche Nicholls has avoided so far).
I'd be less antagonistic about it if girls were even briefly mentioned in the band. But everyone else is male. Realistically, in a patriarchal society as established here and in the military, Coilla would be the target of extreme sexism and hatred, and once they're outlaws, almost certainly sexually assaulted and raped. But we don't get so much as a hint of that, and I'm disappointed that Nicholls didn't even mention this very real social concern when he seems to mention every other social justice issue.
All the Wolverine soldiers and officers are male. All of the other soldiers and leaders (with the one exception of Queen Jennesta, who is the main villain and should not be held up as any kind of role model) are male.
The hostages, victims, and characters on the sidelines are women and children.
And Nicholls didn't even use it in regards to Coilla! She's just kinda...there. No explanation of why she's a corporal when all the other orc women mentioned are hanging back in villages taking care of the kids. No explanation of why none of her male comrades don't have a problem with this.
If he had used it as a way to showcase the shit women face in the work force and the sexism and violence and all of that, I wouldn't mind as much, because it's a real issue that needs to be addressed. But it's not talked about. Not one word. Unlike the racism and environmental ravaging that Nicholls spends a lot of time talking about.
Number two: the villain is way over the top. And I mean, jeez.
Her name is Queen Jennesta, and she's a half-orc, half-human sorceress who controls the Wolverines until they turn on her. She is interesting, and there are a lot of questions that are unanswered at the end of Book I that I hope are answered later in the series, such as her parents (apparently her mom was this super-powerful orc sorceress, whose power was only surprised by her human lover, who killed her; no, I don't know why), her sisters (she has two, and they don't get along), and her plan (apparently this is all to help the earth, which is being destroyed).
But Nicholls goes way overboard in showcasing how evil she is. In every scene with Jennesta, she kills someone. The first time we meet her, she rapes a man as she kills him for some sort of magic ritual. She's like the pretty girl who needs to be told over and over again that she's pretty. You're pretty! You're pretty! And so very evil!
She's so comical in her cruelty I can't take her seriously. Her plan to help the earth probably involves genocide (she's evil, in case you missed that).
Number three: cliches.
Nicholls hits almost every single cliche out there, with the one exception of the romantic subplot (and I pray he doesn't add that, because if that's the only reason Coilla's a female in the all-male war band, I'm out).
You have the oppressed people (the orcs) rising up against their tyrant (Jennesta and the rest of the world).
You have the oppressed people with this super-fearsome reputation (orcs eat babies, orcs are soulless...) but hey, they're actually not that bad, guys! They're crusty characters with hearts of gold.
You have the super-evil villain with little to no apparent depth.
You have the quest that, if successful, will change the fate of humanity (or in this case, orc-manity; more on that in spoilers).
You have a bunch of main characters that, despite facing insurmountable odds and countless deadly situations, don't ever seem to die, for no reason I can determine other than the fact that they're the main characters.
There's the mean bully, who says they should leave behind the wounded and carry on, only to get sick himself and have to be tended to by everyone else.
During the most dangerous part of the book, the woman (Coilla) has to stay back and "stand guard" while all the men do the big scary dangerous thing, only to screw up this one simple task and be put in mortal danger by an unforeseen threat and probably need rescuing from the men.
And of course the lone racial minority, the dwarf (Jup), who gets picked on by the racial majority, especially the bully (Haskeer), until the minority does something outrageously dangerous and heroic to show that he's just as good as the rest of them.
Actually...I don't really mind that last one. Because when it works, it really works. It's one of those feel-good friendship stories that carries an important moral of brotherhood, camaraderie...(as well as the additional moral that ethnic minorities' best shot at acceptable is full integration with the majority, eliminating as many differences between them as possible, and to do the majority culture way better than the majority itself to be on somewhat equal footing with them; so instead of being accepted as a dwarf, Jup had to be more Orc than the orcs and put his life on the line in a super-dangerous mission just to get some goddamn peace and quiet from his bullies).
Unfortunately, before the reconciliation could happen, Haskeer went batshit insane and ran away (more in spoilers).
Once I realized I was in for a bunch of cliches, I enjoyed the book. I want to solve the mysteries. I'm invested in (some of) the characters. So I'll probably stick it through the rest of the series. But it's one of those books where, while it's a great premise, it could've been done better.
We start with the battle between the Wolverines and a human town, where the Wolverines successfully steal a cylinder (what it holds, they don't know) for Queen Jennesta. They also find pellucid, which is this world's most expensive, classy drug.
So, to celebrate a job while done, the entire band gets high.
And they miss the deadline to returning to their extremely volatile, cruel, evil queen.
While hung over and rushing to get back, the Wolverines run into a band of kobolds, who steal the cylinder. They chase them down. (Meanwhile Jennesta's in her palace being evil and angry at the Wolverines for being late.)
When they do get it back, they also find a gremlin, who's a scholar who was kidnapped by the kobolds for the purposes of...whatever's in the cylinder.
The Wolverines' leader Stryke decides their best chance at surviving Jennesta is knowing what's in the cylinder and using it to bargain with her. They open it, revealing an artifact--a metallic star of sorts--as well as a scroll in a dead language only the gremlin can understand. They learn that there are five of these artifacts hidden in the world, and that together, they could change the coarse of orc-kind.
The thing is, in this world, orcs are little more than slaves. The Wolverines themselves were given over to Jennesta by their previous lord (and none of them are happy about it, but until now they've just sucked it up). They're also furious at the humans, especially those who worship one god (called the Unis, who are also racists and believe that everyone else should go to hell--literally). They are, somehow, draining the world of its magic, slowly destroying it. The northern lands are being covered in glaciers that are moving south with every human.
The humans are at war with each other, Unis against Manis (who believe in multiple gods and are a bit more tolerant of the other races, even allying with the occasional orc band to fight their enemy).
So Stryke sees this as an opportunity to free himself, his band, and all other orcs from eternal servitude, as well as possibly saving the world itself from global warming as caused by magic deprivation. The war band follows him.
They go to a town called Trinity, because the gremlin told them that the kobolds planned on going there next to obtain the second star. Trinity is a Uni town, super religious, and based on Puritanism. Despite their hatred for all other races, these humans are hiring dwarfs for menial labor.
Enter Jup, who goes undercover.
Around the same time, Jup's racist bully Haskeer (who's constantly giving him shit about being a dwarf) falls ill with a near-fatal fever. More on that later.
Also, in between ritually killing a bunch of innocent servants, Jennesta has the Wolverines declared outlaws and is making their lives difficult by sending more war bands and dragons after them.
Jup gets into the city and finds the star, as well as a green house that's growing a bunch of poisonous plants. The Wolverines realize Trinity is going to poison the water drunk by the other races in the area. While stealing the star, Jup burns down the green house. The folks at Trinity are not happy with this development and join the chase for the war band.
Next the group plans on going to the troll stronghold, which they think has the third star (due to something Jup overheard in Trinity). Haskeer has woken up, and is acting weird. And I mean reeeeeeally weird. He suggests talking with the trolls instead of fighting them.
Which makes sense. I mean, they still have the pellucid, which is worth a lot. Why they risk a head-on assault instead of, I don't, negotiating with the trolls is beyond me. Must be an Orc thing.
Coilla is told to stay behind with Haskeer (who's still a bit out of his mind and should not be left alone or in charge of anything) and a foot soldier while the others go into the troll caves. She holds the pellucid and the two stars, with orders to leave if Stryke doesn't come back and do with them as she wishes.
In the caves, Stryke and another soldier get separated from all the others, and are captured by trolls who are about to sacrifice them to their gods. On the plus side, they find the star! (It's attached to the handle of the knife that the king's going to use to kill them.)
Outside the caves, Haskeer goes batshit, knocks out the soldier and Coilla, steals the stars, grabs a horse, and runs. Coilla recovers first and chases after him. But she gets caught by some of Jennesta's people.
$100 says Stryke'll have to go in and save the damsel in distress. Assuming he gets out of the whole sacrificial ritual thing, which he will, because none of the main characters have died so far. If any of them do die in Books II and III, it won't be Stryke.
So yeah. That happened.
Thanks for reading! :)
If you have any comments, questions, or concerns that you don't want to type in the handy little box at the bottom, feel free to contact me.