The main problem with the orcs in Stan Nicholls’ Orcs: Forged for War (a spinoff of his fantasy novels set in the same universe) is that there’s little to nothing about them that’s specifically, well, orc-ish. Yes, they’re green and they have pointy ears, but really, the point is that they’re just honorable grunts going off to do the dirty work. While that might make Stryke and his team of Wolverines (and what an odd name for a band of orcs that is – the echoes of Red Dawn are just loud enough to dent suspension of disbelief permanently) accessible and maybe a bit sympathetic, it also means they don’t register as anything other than grunts, getting screwed by their bosses. There’s nothing in Stryke’s situation that wouldn’t be instantly recognizable to Croaker of the Black Company, or Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen, and that’s a disappointment.
The setting doesn’t help alleviate this nearly as much as it should. Stryke’s world is, unsurprisingly, torn by war. On one side are human religious fanatics, fully intent on genocide of all the world’s other intelligent species. On the other are the various critters you’d expect from any well-stocked fantasyland, orcs and elves and centaurs and dwarves and hobgoblins and so forth. Our heroic orcs are, unsurprisingly, on the non-human side of the lines, working for a bloodthirsty sorceress who commands them to escort a bunch of suspiciously secretive goblin wizards…somewhere, to do something. They’re just grunts, however, so they don’t get told where they’re going or what they’re going there for, and grousing about this makes up a significant chunk of their dialog.
Of course, the goblins turn out to have something sinister on their mind. This is not surprising; it’s been telegraphed from almost the moment we first meet them. Indeed, they were so obvious about their villainy that it’s almost enough to fool an uncautious reader – surely, no real traitors would be so damn clumsy about what they were up to. The only real power in the story comes at the end, after that betrayal, when punishment is meted out. Until then, it’s an exercise in taking the long way round, just to cram in a few more action sequences.
The art doesn’t do the book many favors, either. Joe Flood’s angular work is light on both curves and details. The battle scenes – and there are a lot of battle scenes – feel stagy and inert. Only at rare moments, such as a fireside encounter outside an inn, does the highly stylized but lightly detailed art offer depth.
And that’s really all that can be said about the book as a whole. There are occasional flashes, but that’s about all. Any excitement generated by the reversal of standard fantasy tropes is buried under the weight of cliche. Fans of Nicholls’ novels will probably enjoy the graphic novel, but there’s little else here to bring in a reader with fresh eyes – even one who liked The Dirty Dozen.
(Roaring Brook, 2011)