Mary Gentle is one of my absolute favourite authors, and I’ve read most – but not quite all – of her books. No two are really alike, so it’s hard to pick my favourite, although on balance I’d probably pick Rats & Gargoyles.
One I hadn’t read till now, which is probably more different than most, is Grunts, her comic fantasy novel from 1992. All her books have their comic moments, handled beautifully and woven into the fabric of a more serious story, but I did wonder what an entire novel of comedy from her would be like.
Grunts starts with a very familiar situation. The Light and the Dark are massing their forces for the final battle for their world. On the side of Light are noble elves, sturdy dwarves, human paladins, subtle wizards and humble halflings. The Dark Lord has in his Horde trolls, necromancers, witches, the undead – and, it goes without saying, orcs.
As usual, the orcs are there to make up overwhelming numbers and be mown down by the heroes of Light – but this changes when a group of orcs finds an unusual dragon’s hoard, consisting of weapons gathered from other worlds – strange, magical weapons like Kalashnikov AK47s, armoured personnel carriers and even helicopters. There’s a curse on the hoard, though, that compels any users to become what its original users were.
So is born the Orc Marine Corps.
We follow General Ashnak, with his habit of chewing unlit cigars; Major Barashkukor, with his Stetson and shades; Commissar Razitshakra, who monitors ideological adherence to the Way of the Orc; the insane weapons development scientist Ugarit; and the formidable Badgurlz squad. At the same time, we follow a pair of halfling thieves who come over like a psychopathic version of Merry and Pippin: happy, carefree halflings who’d slit their granny’s throat for a few coppers.
The Last Battle goes the way it must – after all, the Light is outnumbered and without a chance, so its victory is inevitable. But that’s only the beginning. In the post-war world, Ashnak takes the Orc Marines into arms dealing, encompassing all their customers in the curse (forest elves as marines are particular fun), before the Dark Lord re-emerges in an unexpected form, with a dastardly new plan for world-domination called “an election”. And then the alien giant bugs invade.
It’s that kind of book. Without Mary Gentle’s perfect tone and pacing, it might end up being an amorphous series of jokes that topple over, but the heart of this novel is its great characters and their gradual growth and development.
The orcs aren’t nice. They’re engaging, they’re fun, and we’re rooting for them, but any time we’re tempted to start thinking of them as “goodies”, they launch into a gleeful massacre of innocents or wholesale torture which, seen objectively, is pretty horrific – but funny. Perhaps the funniest moment in the whole book – “pass me another elf, Sergeant” – is also the sickest, in context. It works because she’s inveigled us into reading the book as orcs.
On the other hand, the paragons of Light are variously racist, murderous, cynical, hypocritical, and politicians. Especially politicians. So, all in all, we tend to feel a good deal of sympathy with Ashnak and co.
There are great one-liners all the way through the book – one, plucked at random, is the definition of the difference between police and secret police. Regular police are “Uniformed officers of visible integrity who keep the government in power,” while secret police are “the same as regular police, but without the uniforms and the integrity.”
I think, though, my single favourite line in the entire book – which I won’t spoil by quoting – is when the marines find a stash of books from our world, including one by Pliny. It’s a priceless line, which could conceivably have been the original seed for the entire work.
Though perhaps not a book for those with delicate stomachs, I found Grunts a sheer joy from beginning to end, and I can definitely recommend it. Mary Gentle has demonstrated she can do SF, fantasy, alternative history and cyberpunk supremely well. Add comedy to that.