When I first read ‘Grunts’, nearly twenty-five years ago, it was a delightful surprise. I’d never read anything that had such a deep understanding of the sword and sorcery novels that I loved and yet was able to see their limitations and pretensions clearly and gleefully vivisect them scalpel-sharp humour. It was one of those books that I pestered everyone to read.
I was already a fan of Mary Gentle. Her books ‘Golden Witchbreed‘ and ‘Ancient Light‘ had me in fan-boy heaven – real characters, difficult issues, anti-colonial politics and a Jacobean level of death and destruction. What I hadn’t expected from her was effective comedy.
The humour in ‘Grunts’ is a joy. It tells the story from the point of view of a bunch of Orcs – yeah, the cannon-fodder of The Dark, the creatures that someone like Gandalf slaughters by the thousand without a qualm. Vicious. Aggressive. Canabilistic. Mary Gentle takes these guys and has them fall under a spell that, without making them any nicer, gifts them with the weaponry and fight ethos of the US Marine Corps. Suddenly, they’re an effective fighting force with an agenda of their own that doesn’t include dying at the hands of The Light because The Dark have no strategy.
‘Grunts’ is a stiletto to the ribs of all those ‘The Last Battle Between the Light and the Dark‘ trilogies that went on for thousands of pages without humour and without once wondering what made The Light something special rather than just another bunch of fanatical warmongers trashing the homes of the poor. It presents the eternal struggle between The Light and The Dark as pointless destruction and instead of seeing only glory and courage, focuses on the blood and the fear.
I had a good time re-reading ‘Grunts’. It was fun in an X-rated Terry Pratchett kind of way. I started to feel some sympathy for the Orcs and hoped that they’d rise up against both leaders of The Light and The Dark. I particularly enjoyed that the ‘Grunts’ analogue of Hobbits were treacherous, murderous, thieves and pimps.
Unfortunately, this time around, I found the book too long. I gave up after 250 pages. I didn’t have the stamina for the rest.
I still recommend ‘Grunts’. It is a unique read.