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Orcs - Bad Blood 1: Weapons Of Magical Destruction
Gollancz paperback £12.99
review by David Hebblethwaite
Several years ago, Stan Nicholls published his Orcs: First Blood trilogy, which was essentially a traditional quest fantasy, but with orcs as the questors instead of their usual sword-fodder. Today, Nicholls' latest novel, Weapons Of Magical Destruction, begins a sequel trilogy, Bad Blood. I can't talk about this book without revealing the ending of the first series; with that in mind, now's the time to decide whether you want to continue reading this review...
In the original trilogy, a band of orcs (plus one dwarf) called the Wolverines collected five 'instrumentalities', magical items that, when joined together, enabled the orcs to travel from the realm of Maras-Dantia to their ancestral home-world. The series ended as they entered the portal between worlds. Now, on the one hand, this was a perfect place to stop, so arguably no sequel was necessary. But on the other hand, wouldn't it be interesting to know what happened next? I thought so, which is why I was pleased to hear about Bad Blood. And now it's here... Well, Weapons Of Magical Destruction shares many of the strengths of its predecessors; but, unfortunately, it has some of their weaknesses, too.
In the orcs' homeworld of Ceragan, Stryke, the erstwhile leader of the Wolverines, is living a settled life with his mate and their two offspring. But settling down doesn't come naturally to an orc, and Stryke is starting to get itchy feet - which he'll soon get chance to exercise, when he learns that Jennesta, the sorceress against whom the Wolverines rebelled, survived the cataclysm at the end of First Blood, and now seeks revenge against orcs in all the realms of existence. And there's a realm out there whose orcs have no knowledge of their race's martial nature, and are being oppressed by humans. Sounds like a job for the Wolverines...
Except the Wolverines have disbanded, so Stryke spends the first hundred pages (a third of the book) getting them back together - a process complicated by the fact that one of their number, the dwarf Jup, elected to stay behind in Maras-Dantia (so the band have to use the instrumentalities to go back and fetch him). In a way, it's a shame that Nicholls chose to do it this way, because it means unpicking the threads of what went before - but it's understandable why he did so. And after that, the main action begins, as the Wolverines travel (again by means of the instrumentalities) to the world of Acurial, where they attempt to stir up rebellion against the orcs' human oppressors; and to deal with Jennesta once and for all.
Nicholls' great strength as a writer here is his ability to tell a gripping tale efficiently. The story moves along at a cracking pace, and the author's action sequences are as vivid as ever (a scene involving a stampeding herd of cows stands out particularly in my memory). This does come at the expense of some subtlety and depth - little of the subterfuge in the plot is hidden from us readers, and sometimes the plot can feel as though it's merely a means to link battle scenes - but the novel's narrative momentum is undeniable.
The characterisation in Weapons Of Magical Destruction is not quite as good as that of the original trilogy. Of course, with such a large band of orcs, it was never going to be feasible that they would all have distinct personalities; but even the protagonists don't all spring from the page as individuals. The only two that really stood out for me were the hot-headed, antagonistic sergeant Haskeer; and Wheam, a chieftain's weedy son begrudgingly taken along by Stryke despite having no apparent skill for fighting whatsoever. Wheam, who rather be a troubadour, provides much of the novel's comic relief, with his wince-inducing ballads and general desire to not get involved in anything dangerous. One character who is portrayed better in the new book, however, is Jennesta, who seemed quite cartoonish in First Blood, but is a more threatening presence here, perhaps because she doesn't appear as often.
Generally speaking, Weapons Of Magical Destruction does feel like something of a retread of the original series; but a substantial amount of material is introduced that will pay off in the later volumes. In terms of the plot, these include Standeven and Pepperdyne, a pair of humans from Maras-Dantia who have been instructed by a tyrant to retrieve the instrumentalities, and manage to bluff their way into tagging along with the Wolverines. There's also an inter-dimensional organisation called the Gateway Corps, who would rather the instrumentalities weren't in the hands of orcs. Thematically, the idea of humans as ravagers and despoilers of worlds comes across more strongly in this book than it did in First Blood; towards the end, Nicholls draws an explicit parallel when he has the leader of the humans on Acurial say that they took over "to stop [the orcs] using weapons of magical destruction against [them]" - not that they've managed to find evidence of any. It remains to be seen what Nicholls will do with all these elements as Bad Blood progresses.
In the end, it comes down to what you want. If you want to read a rattling sword-and-sorcery yarn, you'll find what you are looking for in Weapons Of Magical Destruction. If you were looking forward to another adventure with the Wolverines, let me assuage any concerns you might have had about the new book not being up to scratch. If, as I was, you were hoping for a new twist on Nicholls' original idea - well, it's not quite there yet. But the First Blood trilogy as a whole was better than its three individual books, and perhaps Bad Blood will be the same. On that basis, it's a warm welcome back to the Wolverines, who star in a good old fantasy adventure that, with luck, may blossom into something yet greater.
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