Grunts is a humorous fantasy novel by Mary Gentle. Orcs, the much maligned boogeymen of a lot of fantasy work, are the protagonists here – struggling to deal with being stuck between the unpleasantly vicious forces of Darkness, and the murderously self-righteous forces of Light. Faced with this degree of hostility, they’re left looking for a third way.
The world of Grunts, at least as the narrative begins, is one in which the struggle between good and evil is over – and good has won. There are a few recalcitrant holdouts, of course. A rather unpleasant necromancer and her orcish minions are among them, as are a pair of unscrupulous Halfling thieves.
But there’s a familiar world out here – the towering spires of the capital of Light seem deliberately reminiscent of Tolkien’s Gondor. There’s a Dragon’s horde, mounded with magical treasure and terrifying curses. A home for wood elves, soaring treetops and smug self-righteousness. Humid, turbulent jungles, teeming with life, most of it inimical to anything else. The world sprawls, and, whilst it’s filled in well with interesting details, it feels familiar. On the other hand, that sort of familiarity is a part of the parody and humour the book sets out to provide.
It does this, in large part, by quietly detonating cliché’s of the genre. The orcs are pragmatic, violent, and in many ways unpleasant. But they’re also comrades, with some sense of loyalty, able to feel the sting of betrayal and the warmth of a fully realised purpose. Gentle takes what had been a faceless antagonist, and invited our sympathy and understanding. Their opponents in the Light are rather less sympathetically portrayed – hidebound wizards, paladins with a martyr complex and a disturbing interest in flagellation, and a cause which is less just and more stultifying, a tad repressive, and ever so slightly similar to that espoused by the armies of the Dark.
This exploration of moral relativism in fantasy is great to see now; it was oart if the vanguard when Grunts! was first published. There’s a sense that the writer is exploring the old clichés and trying to expand beyond them whilst remaining inside the tropes. At the same time, there’s a certain joy taken in exploding those tropes. The orcs quickly get out of hand, an independent force, armed with assault weapons and a bad attitude. The dialogue is cracklingly vibrant, and crackingly self-aware. It’s determined to poke fun at every sacred cow of the genre, and then explore the consequences of jettisoning convention. It’s filled with elves with a vicious turn of mind, orcs with familial loyalty, Halflings using piano-wire as garrottes, and even the occasional and unconventional love story.
From a plot standpoint – well, it’s largely following the orcs as they escape from various people hunting them down, deal with cursed treasures, and slowly become something more than a gaggle of subordinates, whilst dealing with what might be the greatest threat their world has ever faced (apart from themselves).
It’s a fast-paced ride, with rather a lot of blood and guts, and what television might call “adult themes”. It’s also absolutely hilarious, and cleverly written. It’s aged a bit, pre-dating the rise of authors like Lawrence and Abercrombie – some of the cliché’s that defined the genre when it was published have been eviscerated since then. Still, the jokes will get a chuckle, the plot’s a rollicking read, and the characters are entertaining enough. It’s a relatively quick read, but still rather fun, if you’re in the mood to mix your fantasy with black comedy.