I picked up this series on some credit at the second-hand bookstore. I was intrigued by the premise, in that it sounded like this was a book that was going to challenge the tired old “orcs are bad guys you can kill with impunity” fantasy trope. Since I am writing a story with a similar premise, I thought I should have a look at what other people had done with that idea recently. When you submit a manuscript to a publisher, they want to know about similar works out there so they have an idea where and how to market your idea. So call it “market research.”
I didn’t know how I would feel about it. “Slave girl learns about orcs to survive and finds they’re not really monsters after all” could be seven types of bad (visions of a more brutalized Gor were making me cringe.) But, it was store credit, so what the hell. I figured if it was lousy I could always bring it back and get more credit.
I needed something new to read for the bathtub, and since I was back to work on that same story (novel series) I mentioned, I thought maybe reading it would inspire me to break through my block. I checked its ratings on Goodreads, and discovered that it had encountered a mixed reception: everything from one to five stars. Weird, I thought. But then I saw that my friend Cat Rambo had rated it at four stars, and I thought, Cat doesn’t say something is good if it isn’t. So that decided me. I would give it a shot.
It was not seven types of bad. It was excellent. The key as to whether you like it or not seems to be, How much can you handle it when the protagonist suffers?
Dar is a desperately poor highland girl who is conscripted into the King’s army. Her family offers her up like a sacrifice. She is branded so she can’t escape and no one would give her refuge if she did. The reason she has been conscripted is that the King employs orcs in his army, and they refuse to be served food unless it’s from a woman’s hands.
Of course, the soldiers use the women for a variety of other things too: scullery maids, servants, kitchen wenches, grooms, and unwilling bedwarmers. If a girl doesn’t find a soldier to protect her in return for sexual favours, then she’s at the mercy of the entire band. Life for these women is brutish and short: they get the last of the rations, are expected to do all the work in camp for the regiment, cook all the food, and screw all night if desired. If they become pregnant, the babies are taken away. One is drowned, though the soldier who took it promised to find it a peasant home to raise it in.
Dar was abused by her father until she stabbed him with a knife, so she has no intention of providing her favours for anyone. But there’s no refuge for her except with the orcs.
The humans hate and fear the orcs. They call them “piss-eyes” (a rather unique epithet, I thought) and Dar does too, at first. The first things she hears about the orcs is that they eat the conscripted women. One girl who is seized with Dar believes this so strongly she hangs herself on route. Dar is made to carry her head to the camp, because she didn’t stop her. This is within about the first twenty pages, so you have some idea of what you’re in for. Kindly, however, all the sexual violence, while mentioned, takes place off-screen, so there’s less trigger warnings than you might expect. Still definitely a book for mature readers, though.
One of the orcs speaks to her gently at the food-serving ceremony and tells her in broken English (or whatever the common human language is, which we read translated as English) that she is saying it wrong. He corrects her pronunciation and she works to get it right. Because he is the only person in the whole regiment who treats her with any gentleness or dignity at all, including the other women, who conspire to earn the favours of more powerful and high-ranking soldiers, she reaches out to him. She realizes that the men fear the orcs, and uses their fear to protect herself by hiding among them when she can.
Slowly, she breaks down the language and cultural barrier – and this is really well done. Really, really well done. Top marks for worldbuilding. We even get an orcish glossary at the end. It sounds vaguely Slavic or Polish.
Dar forms a friendship with this orc, who agrees to protect her. She learns that the orcs serve in the army because their queen has a debt to the human king for healing her sickness; though it quickly becomes clear that something isn’t right there.
Dar also learns in orcish culture, food belongs to women, and only they may dispense it as a gift from their goddess. She pushes this issue when the orcs begin to resist her presence in their camp. She tells them that if they do not consider her a real woman – a mother, in their language – then the food from her hands is no good and they’ll have to get it themselves. But if she is a mother, she’s entitled to their protection and they should listen to her.
Kovok-mah, her orc friend, agrees, and so he announces to the soldiers that Dar is under his protection the next time she attacked in the only way he knows how: “This is my woe man!” Then everyone thinks they are lovers – something a rival among the women for the attentions of one of the commanders, whom Dar is only trying to avoid – is happy to spread. Dar becomes a complete pariah. Her only hope lies with the orcs, and they don’t want her there either.
I’ll stop there, because the rest would be a complete spoiler. But I’ll let you know that I was riveted. I could hardly put the book down.
Why not give it five stars then? It’s got a couple of glaring flaws that are difficult to ignore. Understand that I think it’s worth putting up with them, but they are occasionally intrusive and jarring.
One is that there’s an unsettling “noble savage” element to the orcs in how their language, culture and behaviour is portrayed. It’s not overwhelming, but it is a bit like a sour aftertaste.
Another is the “not like other women” syndrome. People repeatedly, for good or ill, say that Dar is “different from other women.” The rest of the branded women are dismissed repeatedly as whores, even when they don’t have a choice in the matter, and she’s the only one who seems to have any courage. I am tired of this old misogynist trope. Now, to be fair, there’s a bit of the “different from other men” thing going on too, as most of the men in the story are indiscriminate rapists and killers, but it’s not as much. Or maybe I just dislike the fact that there seem to be exactly three or four decent people (human, orc or otherwise) in the whole story and everyone else is irredeemably awful. I understand the circumstances are unusual, but “grim-for-grim’s-sake” gets wearisome after a while.
A third is that the author clearly has no understanding of the mechanics of war. I wish that more writers would spend more time researching this in epic fantasy! The king’s army doesn’t make sense and wouldn’t function. They would fall apart at the first sign of real battle with their slovenly ways and terrible discipline. All they seem to do is march. They never drill, not even when they are stopped from marching by weather. And if any army had to survive on the rations described as long as they did, they would simply fall over from exhaustion and stop marching entirely. I realize that medieval armies put up with a lot more deprivation than modern armies do, but there’s a limit. I grant that this is an unwilling camp follower’s view of war, mostly told from the third person personal, so maybe Dar doesn’t understand, but I can’t figure it out either.
That said, the story does what a story is supposed to do: it grabs a hold of you by the collar, makes you want to keep turning those pages, and makes you want to read the sequel when it’s done. So I think I will! I’m invested in Dar and Kovok-mah and I want to know how things turn out for them.
If you’re a fan of traditional sword-and-sorcery fantasy, as I am, this is a delightfully refreshing read in that war is horrible, death is permanent, and the orcs are not just bad guys because the humans say so. Well worth it!