"Let me tell all of you something about orcs...If you're born an orc, everyone's hand is against you. Every Dark Leader that happens along thinks, I need an army, what about a few thousand orcs? They're brutal, efficient, cheap, and there's always plenty more where they came from." -- Ashnak the Orc
Just as in every military campaign, in the Final Battle between the Dark and the Light, it's the ordinary soldiers who get the short end of the stick. On the Dark side, that means the orcs. Ashnak is a minion of the nameless necromancer, who in turn is lackey to the Dark Lord. When he and his orcs are sent on a secret mission in preparation for the Final Battle, he has no idea that it will turn his life and the lives of hundreds of orcs in an entirely new direction.
The nameless necromancer instructs Ashnak and Co. to act as a protective guard to Ned and Will Brandiman, two extremely nasty and murderous halfling thieves sent by the Dark Lord to steal special weapons from a dragon's hoard. But the dragon, Dagurashibanipal, has cursed the hoard with the following curse: What you steal, you shall become. Now, it just so happens that the dragon has accumulated some of its booty from other worlds... including ours. And what they steal from the dragon happens to be weaponry and uniforms courtesy of the United States Marine Corps. So the effect of the curse is to transform the orcs into MARINES, in all of their disciplined, well-trained glory. Or at least as disciplined and well-trained as bloodthirsty wild creatures can be...
Grunts is a satire, poking not so much at Tolkien as at his numerous formulaic imitators, and not so much at the United States Marines as at the body of blood-and-guts action films made in the '70's and '80's (think Rambo, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, etc.). It's also a parody of modern politics, and of alien invasion books/films (Starship Troopers REALLY takes a hit in Grunts). I won't encapsulate the entire plot -- there are too many nifty twists and I hate to put in too many spoilers -- but I will say that Mary Gentle is a delightfully twisted soul with a sharp eye for the ridiculous, and she pulls no punches here.
Some highlights of the book for me: Amarynth Firehand, an elf and mage on the side of the Light; a sugary pure and righteous, vanilla cream-puff send up of the generic colorless personality-free High Elf of so many bad high fantasy novels, who gets his comeuppance in the end. Barashkukor and Ashnak, two Orcs as commanding, loyal, and humane as any U.S. Marine; at least any Marine as portrayed by Hollywood, that is. Magda, the halfling who knows the realities of the world if you're born a woman in a high fantasy-type land, and who works those realities to her own very strange advantage.
Grunts has been criticized for violence and sexual content, and it's true that I wouldn't recommend this book for a ten-year-old. But I did not find the violence, which is ever-present, gory, and extremely graphic, to be at all gratuitous given the subject matter. In nine out of ten books, the level of violence and graphic sexuality displayed in this novel would turn me off entirely; in Grunts, it seems somehow organic to the situation. Orcs, heroes of the novel or not, are not Nice. War is not, as is often implied in high fantasy, a pretty and tidy little game won or lost by a single magical sword and single combat between one Dark Lord and one Heroic Prince. War is nasty, and bad things happen in battle. Mary Gentle illustrates that fact intensely and admirably in Grunts. I wouldn't take out a single splash of blood. But be forewarned if you're squeamish. Grunts may not be the book for you.
I enjoyed Grunts very much; it is, as the cover states, "a fantasy with attitude." I am not squeamish or easily offended, and wouldn't recommend it to those who are, but it's certainly a worthy read if you enjoy parody and are tired of the same old fantasy caricatures and stereotypical quests.