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Orcs: First Blood
Book 1: Bodyguard of Lightning
Book 2: Legion of Thunder
Stan Nicholls
Orion Millennium, 298 and 281 pages

Bodyguard of Lightning
Legion of Thunder
Stan Nicholls
From 1971 to 1973, Stan Nicholls co-owned and managed Bookends, a general/specialist science fiction book shop in West London. In 1973 he became a MS reader for Sphere Books, then for Penguin and Rider Books. Later, he joined the Forbidden Planet retail chain in 1976 and stayed until 1981. He's been a full-time freelance writer since 1981 with work appearing in such diverse markets as The Guardian, The Independent, Daily Mirror, Film Monthly, Rolling Stone, Interzone, Comic World and North London Independent local newspaper groups. In 1995, he began working as Advisory Editor for Little, Brown's science fiction imprint, Orbit. He is a freelance copywriter, contributing to several major advertising campaigns for agencies including Saatchi & Saatchi.

Stan Nicholls Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Todd Richmond

What do you get when you combine a squad of orcs, five strange tokens of unknown power, and a vindictive, paranoid, blood ritual-using sorceress? A strange tale of magic, fantastic creatures, and mythical elder races that warps your expectations.

As you might expect this review is for yet another new series, Stan Nicholls' Orcs: First Blood. The first two volumes are already out -- Book 1: Bodyguard of Lighting and Book 2: Legion of Thunder. It's billed as "an epic fantasy series set in a world full of wonders and on the brink of disaster. It will change the way you look at orcs forever." All I can say to that is "what series were they reading?" Because in my opinion, that certainly doesn't describe Orcs: First Blood. Let me tell you what the series is about, and then I'll tell you what I liked and didn't like about it.

Bodyguard of Lighting starts off with a raid on a human settlement by a small troop of orcs called the Wolverines. The Wolverines, led by Captain Stryke, have been sent by Queen Jennesta to retrieve a mysterious cylinder from the humans. The orcs retrieve the object but also find a stash of illicit drugs. Rewarding themselves, they fail to promptly return with the cylinder. Fearing for their lives, the orcs desperately attempt to return with the cylinder to Jennesta, but are ambushed by a group of kobolds who overpower them and steal the cylinder. Knowing that their lives are forfeit if they return without the object of their quest, the orcs give chase. Meanwhile, Jennesta is convinced that the orcs have taken the cylinder for themselves and declares them outlaws. A sorceress of mixed nyadd and human heritage, Jennesta is not known for her patience or her mercy. She's an incredibly evil woman who feeds on the life force of other creatures to power her magic, using a combination of sexual ritual, murder and cannibalism.

Jennesta commands another orc commander to hunt down and kill Stryke and the Wolverines, and recover the cylinder. So while Stryke is desperately trying to track down the kobolds, Delorran, who hates Stryke with a passion, is stalking them. Stryke and his men eventually catch up with the kobolds and wreak their revenge. They recover the cylinder, but learn that they all have a price on their heads. Damned if they do and damned if they don't, they decide to open the cylinder and learn just what has brought this predicament upon them. Inside they discover a mysterious artifact, a crude-looking star. A gremlin scholar informs them that the star is an instrumentality, one fifth of a larger puzzle. When the five pieces are brought together, a totem of great magical power will be created, one that could reveal the truth behind a mystery concerning the greater races.

You can probably guess the rest. Since Stryke and his men are marked for death anyway, they decide to find the other four instrumentalities and bring them together. The remainder of the two books details their quest and their flight from their pursuers. Once they begin their quest they are hunted not just by their fellow orcs, but by bounty hunters and fanatical humans as well. The second book ends with the quest continuing.

So were does this series fail for me? First, the unique twist is supposed to be that it's told from the point of view of the orcs. "It will change the way you look at orcs forever." Nicholls' orcs display bravery, a sense of honour, and a certain amount of compassion, and are portrayed as indentured servants whose services were sold to Jennesta. Evidently we're supposed to compare this to our current idea of orcs as baby-eating, back-stabbing creatures of evil who gleefully kill and destroy for fun. (I'm not sure where we're supposed to get that notion.)

For more confusion, try to find a detailed description of what Stan Nicholls' orcs look like. You could go by the cover illustration, but that's just an artist's concept of what they look like. Most of the other elder races mentioned in the book are described at least cursorily, but in the first hundred pages there is not a single word about the physical appearance of the orcs. Is that an oversight or a deliberate attempt to allow the reader to come to the series with their own preconceived notions about orcs, and then attempt to shatter them? That may work great if your concept of orcs is straight out of Tolkien. But I tend to stick with the last thing I read, and for me that was Mary Gentle's Grunts. It is a marvellous tongue-in-cheek novel about a bunch of orcs who discover a dragon's hoard which includes a cache of modern military weapons (M16's, jeeps, helicopters, etc.) and are cursed to become a hilarious parody of U.S. Marines.

That aside, this series feels to me as if it had been trimmed of some of the more useful and interesting content by an overzealous editor. The information about the world, the magic, and the creatures that inhabit it, is scattered and fragmentary. I'm sorry, but you can never include too much background information for me. Without a proper backdrop, you just have to work harder to make the story grab your attention and pull you in.

That's not to say the series doesn't have any redeeming qualities. It's difficult to tell where the main story with the instrumentalities is headed. Two books in, I'm still not sure what's going to happen when they are all joined together. Stryke and his Wolverines are great as the questors, being pursued, it seems, by everyone. There's an interesting side story happening with Stryke, which still has me mystified. He periodically has these dreams of an orc paradise (some kind of Valhalla?) and a mysterious orcish woman. Nicholls also knows how to describe a battle in gritty detail, in such a way that it grabs your interest and yet still appears as unglamorous and unromantic as it should. The books may be worth reading just for Queen Jennesta, a truly splendid evil psychotic sorceress mixed up in sex, torture, deception, magic and mayhem.

So what's the final verdict? The jury is still out. It's a fun fantasy story but I'm not convinced that the "unique" twist of telling it from the orcs' point of view makes it a must read. The story has been kind of slow so far and I wonder if it is going to be possible to finish it up in just one more book. Despite the slowness, I still would have liked a more cohesive and comprehensive background for the story, rather than little bits of information tossed in here and there and the rest left for the reader to synthesize.

Copyright © 2000 by Todd Richmond

Todd is a plant molecular developmental biologist who has finally finished 23 years of formal education. He recently fled Madison, WI for the warmer but damper San Francisco Bay Area and likes bad movies, good science fiction, and role-playing games. He began reading science fiction at the age of eight, starting with Heinlein, Silverberg, and Tom Swift books, and has a great fondness for tongue-in-cheek fantasy Óla Terry Pratchett, Craig Shaw Gardner and Robert Asprin.

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