Stan Nicholls, Orcs: Bad Blood (Orbit, 2009)

Middle-Book-Itis is a common complaint in fantasy series and trilogies. Its symptoms include narrative dependence on the events of the previous novels without a clear explanation of what happened before, and the introduction of numerous plot threads the author fails to tie up by novel's end. While Orcs: Bad Blood, the sequel to Orcs, manages to escape the first of these symptoms, it succumbs to the second, with a lot of other problems besides.

At the novel's start, orc leader Stryke and his retired warband the Wolverines are living an idyllic, if slightly boring, life in Ceragan, the orcs' true dimension. While Stryke and his buddy Haskeer are out hunting, they encounter a startling magical lightshow that heralds the appearance of someone arriving in their dimension.

The human envoy dies only moments after arriving (due to a bad case of Knife in the Back), but he carries an enchanted stone that relays a message to the startled orcs: in yet another dimension, orcs are being brutalized and tortured by an invading human force, and they need a heroic band to step in and save them. The dead envoy still carries a set of five stars (magical MacGuffins from the previous novel) that allow its bearers to travel between worlds.

Stryke, keen to hop on whatever excuse he can to draw arms, rallies his Wolverines, some new recruits from Ceragan, and some old dwarf friends, and then uses the stars to travel to this new dimension where orcs are still being subjugated. To the Wolverines' astonishment, the orcs in this new world are timid and nonviolent, with only a very few willing to rebel against their human conquerors.

The novel asks some intriguing questions about the true nature of orcs, and whether it's better to be violent, barbaric and free (like the Wolverines), or peaceful, civilized but open to invasion (like the orcs of this newer world). As well, after a short summary of the previous novel, the story picks up in a way that subtly informs the reader of the previous novel's plot without a lot of tedious infodumping.

However, the rest of the book plays out in a ham-handed and simplistic fashion. The conquering humans have a motivation so blatantly topical it's insulting, not to mention stale (they invaded because they were looking for -- I'm not making this up -- weapons of magical destruction, which they still haven't found yet). Many of the characters are just plain caricatures (like Stryke's breathtakingly stupid pal Haskeer whose entire purpose, it seems, is to say the wrong thing and enrage all of Stryke's potential allies), and the main villain is so stereotypical it's rather funny (black, spiked leather outfit? Check. Stiletto-heeled boots? Check. Lust for power and cruelty without motivation or strategy? Check and check!).

On top of all that, the novel ends with virtually every plot thread left hanging. No significant battles are won, no questions are answered, no plot points are achieved. The story just ... ends. So the reader is treated to a book chock-full of endless battle scenes and infighting without any narrative resolution. While in trilogies it is necessary to leave some space for another book to take up the narrative slack, every instalment in a series has to be a complete story in its own right, and this requires an introduction, a development, and a conclusion.

Stan Nicholl's Orcs: Bad Blood, while it carries on after the previous book with ease, fails to give the reader a satisfactory conclusion, and not only that, doesn't provide an original or interesting enough story to sell the next book. When an author sequel-baits, the operative word here is "bait" -- there has to be a reason that will lure readers to continue with the series. Sadly, Orcs: Bad Blood is all hook, no worm.

[Elizabeth Vail]