I’m really enjoying this series! But I found this book a harder read than the first one, King’s Property. I’m not sure why that is. I think maybe it’s because the first book was such a nail-biting horror-fest that you kind of hope that things will be better when the characters finally get back to the orcs. And they are, but of course the characters find themselves back in the fray.
In this trilogy, which might have made a good single book if any publisher would have published it like that, Dar is a peasant human woman conscripted to serve the orc regiments in the King’s army. Such women are branded so they can never leave, and there’s a bounty on their heads, so they can be killed with impunity. This practice began because the orcs refused to take food unless it was served to them by women.
Of course the human soldiers of the regiment use these women for a variety of other purposes as well, including kitchen drudge, labourer, and unwilling bedwarmer. Survival depends upon earning the favour of a soldier who effectively takes possession of the woman he’s raping; otherwise, she’s fair game for gang rape and is likely to starve to death or die of exposure, since these women only get whatever is left over as far as both food and shelter are concerned.
People are terrified of the orcs, but Dar, our protagonist, has been abused by her father, so she has no intention of being anyone’s bedwarmer. Because she will not conform, she earns the interest (and wrath) of the regiment’s commander, Mudrant Kol. Desperately she hides herself among the orcs, who terrify the rest of the regiment, and slowly, through the kindness of one orc soldier named Kovok-mah, breaks through the cultural and language barriers and is grudgingly accepted. It helps that she seems to be directly blessed by the orc’s mother goddess, Muth la, and her blessing increases a soldier’s chance of survival.
It turns out that the orcs are only fighting because they are commanded to do so by their queen, who is receiving healing magic from the king’s wizard – although you get the sense that something is awry there almost right away.
At the end of the last book, (view spoiler) This book picks up where the last one left off, and the small band, guided by Dar, journey to orcish lands to escape the war. They are given shelter by the clan of an orc who has pledged his life to Dar’s service (that’s all in the last book; no details provided here,) but it is initially a grudging acceptance.
Orc society is as matriarchal as the human one is patriarchal, and here we get to see all the potential hazards of that (hint: it’s not much better, just different.) Kovok-mah returns to his clan and the other members of the band return to theirs, and Dar learns how to fit in with orcish society. This is complicated by the fact that Kovok-mah and Dar have fallen in love and started a relationship, but marriage only happens if it is approved of by an orc male’s mother and his clan matriarch.
For reasons of their own, which have nothing to do with Dar’s benefit, or compassion, but some hidden motive that is not made clear in this book, the Yat matriarch decides to accept Dar fully into her clan. Dar is “reborn” in an orcish ritual and claimed as one of the clan daughters. But part of their purpose is to use Dar to free the orc queen, who is a member of the Yat clan – though even this is likely not entirely because of concern for the queen herself.
Dar is eventually manipulated into attempting to do just that, and yes, something has been awry this whole time. A human soldier from a distant land – who is clearly not of the same ilk as most of the rest of the army, although that’s about all that recommends him in my opinion (because he’s otherwise entirely uninteresting and I can’t fathom why he has the feelings for Dar that he has,) aids them in their cause due to his feelings for Dar.
I found the ending to this book to be unsatisfactory. I realize there’s still a third book to go, so of course the story doesn’t end here, but the author makes it seem like it will, then undoes all the good the characters have accomplished almost immediately. It feels shoehorned and contrived. I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt because I know there’s still a third book to go, and obviously this was all intended to be one story, but otherwise, I would be annoyed.
Still, the rest of the story, and the fresh take on orcs, is so refreshing it almost entirely makes up for it. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see someone else who realizes that orcs can’t simply be the bad guys because somebody else says so! It’s fun to see a human-orc romantic relationship too. Half-orcs have been a staple of fantasy gaming for a long time, and they have to come from somewhere…
Definitely not a stand-alone book, so I’ll reserve my final opinion for when I have finished all three.