I took to calling it my five minute idea. Not that such ideas are any less or more valid than those you sweat over for weeks. But this was an example of one that dropped, almost fully formed, into what passes for the creative segment of my brain.
What was the idea? Well, it seemed to me at the time to be quite simple, and still does. My thought was, “Why shouldn’t orcs be the heroes?”
Victors tend to be the ones who write the history books, and inevitably demonise the defeated. What if that happened to the orcs? Suppose that yes, they were a martial race and capable of great ferocity, but not the mindless, savage creatures as depicted. Scary, probably, but not actually evil. The objects of slander, hated by all and unjustly cast out.
Let’s be clear at this point: I’m not talking about Tolkien’s orcs. His portrayal of the race is the best known and most celebrated, but Tolkien didn’t invent orcs any more than he invented elves, dragons, goblins or any of the other mythical beings that populate his oeuvre. Needing agents of malevolence, he took a race mentioned in various ancient tracts and fashioned it into a mindless horde; and did it brilliantly, of course. That was his take. This is mine.
Once you have the notion of making orcs the heroes, it’s a small step to casting humans as the villains. Again, the concept’s actually quite simple; it’s a case of turning everything on its head. But I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to flesh out the orcs and their world view, to give them a culture, a code, beliefs, hopes, dreams and fears - even a certain nobility. I wanted to present them as sympathetic characters. Fantasy fiction being an accommodating genre, I also saw an opportunity to underlie what was basically a fast paced adventure with certain other concerns, including environmental issues, religious fanaticism, the nature of violence, and the way we view outsiders. And I set myself the challenge of cramming in as much action as possible without compromising the plot.
This was in the late ‘90s, when all the above coalesced into the initial trilogy, Orcs: First Blood, comprising Bodyguard of Lightning, Legion of Thunder and Warriors of the Tempest. A trilogy that, with the benefit of word of mouth, ultimately achieved worldwide sales in excess of a million copies.
The orcs series is epic in scale. But every story, no matter how large the canvas, can work only if it focuses on the fortunes of the few. In this case it centres on a thirty-strong orcs warband called the Wolverines.
The setting is Maras-Dantia, a world populated by a range of exotic creatures, known collectively as the elder races. These races co-existed without too much friction. But the balance was upset by the arrival of humans, who were scornful of the cultures they encountered, regarding the elder races as mere beasts or monsters. The humans dammed rivers, denuded forests, razed villages and tore precious resources from the earth. Their rape of the land bled it of essential energies, weakening the magic elder races took for granted. This warped the climate and threw the seasons into chaos. Summers became autumnal. Winters lengthened, swallowing Spring. Before long there was war between the natives of Maras-Dantia and the humans.
Old rivalries divided the elder races, complicated by the actions of the notoriously opportunistic dwarf population. Many sided with the humans and willingly undertook their dirty work. Others remained loyal to the elder races’ cause.
But the humans were also divided, with most separated into two religious factions. The Followers of the Manifold Path, or Manis, pursued ancient pagan ways. Their rivals marched under the banner of Unity. Known as Unis, they held to the younger cult of monotheism. Both groups were prone to fanaticism and bigotry.
Orcs were one of the few races not to possess magical powers. They made up for it with a thirst for combat, and were usually to be found in the eye of any storm.
Unusually bright by orc standards, Stryke captained the Wolverines. Below him were two sergeants, Haskeer and Jup. Haskeer was the most reckless and headstrong of the group; Jup was the only dwarf, indeed the only member who wasn’t an orc, and consequently the occasional object of suspicion. Below the sergeants were corporals Alfray and Coilla. Alfray was the oldest member and a healer, specialising in field surgery; Coilla was the sole female in the band, and a brilliant strategist. Below them were twenty-five grunts.
The Wolverines were enslaved to Jennesta, a despotic, self-styled Queen and commander of great magical powers who supported the Mani cause. A human-elder race symbiote, her insatiable appetite for cruelty and sexual perversity was infamous.
Under Stryke’s leadership, the Wolverines were one of the most successful and feared warbands in Jennesta’s horde. Consequently she took to using them for special assignments. Orcs: First Bloodtells the story of one such mission. A mission that started out with the straightforward objective of recovering a mysterious artefact, and developed into a struggle whose ramifications affected the whole of Maras-Dantia, and could lead to the orcs finally gaining their freedom.
When I came to write the second trilogy, Orcs: Bad Blood - Weapons of Magical Destruction, Army of Shadows and Inferno – now issued in the UK as an omnibus edition, I felt as though I was coming home. It was a genuine pleasure reacquainting myself with these characters. But what I didn’t want to do was just reprise the first trilogy. So I gave them a larger canvas still. In this second trilogy the orcs juggle the fate of not one world, but many, and the stakes are even higher.
Five minute idea or not, my hope is that this series will enable you to see that most maligned race, the orcs, in a new light.