Mary Gentle – GruntsAugust 26th, 2005 by Reinder
Grunts by Mary Gentle is one of those books I've been meaning to read for a long time, but putting off. I wanted to read it because the cover and blurb suggested something very similar to Terry Pratchett's Guards novels: a humorous story about the people whose job in other, conventional, fantasy novels would be to get butchered by the truckload. I put it off for fear that it would be nothing more than that: a Pratchettesque concept only not as good. Fortunately, it keeps getting reprinted. Grunts, as it turns out, is a much better novel than I had any right to expect; nevertheless, it didn't quite click for me.
The blurb, in fact, reflects only a small portion of the events of the novel. The run-up to the Final Battle Between Good and Evil is over by the end of Book One (of three) and only serves as set-up for the rest of the book. In Book One, the orc Aznak is sent to steal a recently-deceased dragon's hoard of high-tech weapons, only to find that the weapons are under a hex that forces the Orcs to behave like Earth Marines. They fight and lose the battle, but their newfound military discipline allows most of the orc troops to get out with their skins. The second and best Book is a base-under-siege story, with the Orcs retreating into the same dragon's cavern and getting trapped there by the Armies of the Light sent to root them out. In the final book, the Dark Lord returns having apparently gone insane: he tries to conquer the world by holding a democratic election.
Many of the negative reviews on Amazon mention that the book is full of missed opportunities. I have to agree; there is plenty for me that's entertaining including some of the morally objectional bits (and you'd have to be a big fool to buy a book with orcs as heroes and expect them to be scrubbed clear of all moral faults). But nowhere does it become a page-turner. I think the biggest problem with the book is that all the satirical elements in it are nothing but metafiction: Gentle's vision of Orcs-as-Marines is based on taking one part Orc clichés and one part military clichés and mixing them up. Likewise, with the election story, one gets humorously evil Orc antics with the ballot-stuffing, scandal-mongering and vote-suppressing you'd expect from
Karl Rove'san Evil Election Campaign.*) Nowhere does Gentle parody the real world — it's all about other texts. It's funny all right, but in an unambitious, unsatisfying way. These days, I need something more. The ending is pretty good, though.
*)And with that shamelessly partisan dig, this review contains more actual satire than the entirety of Grunts. Which is saying something.