Fantasy novels are like pizza: even when they’re bad, they’re still pretty good, and while the “toppings” may vary somewhat, you know what you’re getting when you choose one. Now imagine you pick up a pizza expecting the same old thing, but then you are pleasantly surprised, as if someone had sneaked chunks of pineapple, or perhaps roasted red pepper, onto your pie. That’s what reading Stan Nicholls’s First Blood trilogy is like.
Nicholls turns fantasy conventions on their ear by making orcs the good guys this time around. Human beings have invaded the land of Maras-Dantia, ruining its natural resources and stripping the land of its magic, making it difficult for the elder races—such as orcs, merfolk and trolls—to survive. The humans have also brought their religious quarrels with them, and the constant fighting between the polytheistic Manis and the one-true-god Unis keeps the rest of Maras-Dantia’s citizens off-balance. Our hero, Stryke, and his warband, the Wolverines, grow weary of serving an evil queen and set off on a quest that could lead to complete orc freedom…or, possibly, death at the hands of dragonfire, religious fanatics, the aforementioned evil queen, or one of her equally deadly sisters.
Reversing the “good humans/bad orcs” trope allows Nicholls to make some fairly pointed commentary on colonialism, environmentalism, religious tolerance and the like. However, you’ll be having so much fun reading the fast-paced, gripping battle scenes that you might not notice the political subtext right away. Stryke is a terrific protagonist, a dedicated warrior who looks after his troops and tries to do the right thing in a low-key, no-nonsense manner. The supporting characters, while less well-rounded, are also sympathetic and endearing, and include Coilla, Stryke’s feisty second-in-command, and Jup, a dwarf who complicates the novel’s racial themes by abandoning his own people and choosing to serve with the orcs. Jennesta, the evil queen, is pretty appalling, even for a villain, and some of her bloodier deeds might be difficult for the squeamish to read. The chapters, however, are both short and thrilling, so you can always let your eyes skim past the more disturbing elements and move on to the next rowdy ambush or dream sequence.
If the First Blood trilogy sounds like fun to you, you can read the collected omnibus volume, called Orcs, in either print or audio formats. And if you find it as thrilling as I did, you can move on to the first volume of the second Orcs trilogy, called Bad Blood. After that, the sky’s the limit, especially when you have an entire team of dedicated librarians to recommend all the fantasy novels your little heart could ever desire.
proud supporter of both orc independence and Spak Brothers