ROC, 1992, 464 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-45453-7
There is no doubt that J.R.R. Tolkien did something magnificent when he created (“wrote” seems such a weak word) The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, in doing so he also ended up unleashing a copycat genre of derivative medieval fantasy. From “Dungeons and Dragons” to Terry Brooks, from KULL THE CONQUEROR to countless Fat Fantasy Trilogies, modern fantasy has all too often depended exclusively on rewriting Tolkien. Battles between good and evil can only be thrilling so many times…
In considering Mary Gentle’s satirically affectionate Grunts (subtitled “A Fantasy With Attitude”), I started at a disadvantage: Not only am I functionally illiterate in medieval fantasy, but I also started with a significant prejudice against the genre. While her novel is accessible enough, it remains a genre send-up and so contains elements that certainly work better on anyone with a good knowledge of the heroic fantasy’s faults and clichés.
It starts, interestingly enough, from the grunts’ point of view. Those poor Orcs forced to do all the fighting against the Army of the Light while their dark masters are busy scheming and torturing heroes in their citadels. But things take a turn for the weird when those Orcs slay a dragon and capture his hoards of weapons… all of them stamped “United States Marines Corps”. What might have been slightly amusing turns very amusing given that the dragon has cursed his hoard with a dastardly spell in which the looters become what they steal…
Before long, the Orcs are swearing like Marines (literally so), target-practicing with rifles and training themselves to execute squad tactics. Initial success against the forces of light is middling (turns out those pesky “neutralize weapon” spells do work against M-16s), but there’s no turning back from a modern army… even the fall of the Dark Empire proves to be only a hiccup in the plot as the Dark Lords comes back and argues… for elections! (On a platform of universal health care and high taxation, naturally.) From evil fantasy satire, Grunts moves on to tackle military fiction, and then science-fiction as the Orcs must fight invading extraterrestrials. A human is transported from our world to this fantasy universe, and that proves to be… utterly unimportant. There’s a wedding. Funerals. Harsh language. Sex. Plus rejoicing by all.
Yes, Grunts is a funny book. Plenty of jokes are sprinkled throughout its pages, tweaking the nose of everything from high fantasy to military fiction and Starship Troopers. (And it’s not a gentle tweaking, thanks to the rather sustained violence exhibited by everyone from orcs to humans) Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as interesting as you could imagine it from the above synopsis. Every humorous moment seems stuck in a duller wrapping of turgid prose that doesn’t do much in sustaining interest. I did love the descriptions of the protagonist’s attitudes toward the self-important “goody-goody” characters, but -oh- did I have a hard time slogging through the rest of the novel to get there. (Great cover illustration, though)
I won’t be the first one to stress the importance of pacing and brief wit when it comes to comedy. Alas, Grunts is definitely not a brief or a zippy novel. At more than 400 pages, it’s overlong by at least a quarter, features too many characters and includes half a dozen indifferent subplots.
Granted, lack of familiarity with the parodied genres may account for a distinct indifference to the spoof. Your mileage will certainly vary if you carry along a deep and unshakeable love for heroic fantasy. Critical comments elsewhere on the web suggest that many readers just went nuts for the book as it is. Still, even the non-fantasy elements of the book don’t seem to work or to free themselves from the morass of the surrounding prose. I certainly hoped for more than I ultimately got from Grunts, and that’s too bad. I just may give it a shot in a few years. After all, it’s not as if typical medieval fantasy —with all of its clichés and its stock situations— is going away anytime soon, right?