I read Queen of the Orcs: King’s Property by Morgan Howell on my Kindle because it looked promising. It starts off well, but ultimately fails.
Dar is half kidnapped, half sold by her parents into the king’s army, where she is branded and enslaved. Most frighteningly, she is required to serve food to the orcs, the shock troops of the army. The orcs’ reputation for brutality terrifies Dar, but ultimately she discovers that the orcs have more to them than she thought.
The book starts off well. It moves quickly. Dar is a likeable, well-drawn character, initially. The prose is clear, in a “bread and butter” style. (If you want poetic metaphors, look elsewhere.) Quite readable. But early on, the themes start smashing you over the head, and they ain’t fun.
Theme 1: Every human male is a rapist, a murderer, or a molester who lives to humiliate or otherwise degrade women. Seriously. All of them. Raping and humiliating Dar is the antagonist’s primary goal. When the possibility of gang raping Dar comes up, every man (every man) in the camp shows up, hoping for a piece. Dar’s father molested her. The king and his generals amuse themselves by pelting the serving women with banquet scraps and then forcing them to eat off the ground. Dar’s supposed romantic interest comes from a culture that (he claims) treats women well, but he never defends her–or any other women–publicly. Neither does any other man, for that matter. I found this particularly difficult to believe. Not one male says, “Hey! I have two daughters back home just her age. It’s not right for you to treat young girls like that.” Actually, it’s not just unbelievable, it’s insulting to men.
Theme 2: All women are victims. Every single woman in the book is victimized by the men. They are raped, treated as prostitutes (trading sexual favors for extra food and better clothes), beaten, even flogged, and executed. And they’re all terrible bitches to each other and to Dar. Only one woman actually treats Dar nicely. And the plot of the whole book revolves around Dar scheming to avoid being raped by the antagonist, which really wears thin after a while. You see, Dar is always trying to avoid something rather than trying to do something, which makes for annoying reading.
Theme 3: The noble savage. I thought this idea had died out in the 40s at the latest. Clearly not. The orcs fulfill this idea. They are all, to a man (orc) noble, intelligent, thoughtful, philosophical, clean (unlike the humans, they bathe regularly), and orderly. They have a well-developed spirituality (the humans seem to have none). They don’t understand the concept of lying. But since they are also brutal, efficient killers and are not human, all humans look down on them. Except Dar, of course. She hates men (well, look at her choices) and ends up forsaking her own kind to join the “aliens.” C.J. Cherryh explored this idea in her fiction a couple decades years ago, and while this doesn’t mean Morgan Howell can’t do it, it does invite comparison, and Howell fails here for the simple reason that his characters are more two-dimensional.
Theme 4: The world is unrelentingly brutal and everyone who is nice eventually dies. And it gets really, really tiring to read about.
There are enormous holes in the world building as well. The army that Morgan is with never once drills. No one seems to care for weapons and armor–or even carry them. When they stop to make camp, the soldiers lounge around doing nothing while the enslaved women do all the work. This flies in the face of all military history. Every commander knows that a major problem is keeping soldiers busy between battles–idle hands make trouble–and one way to keep them occupied is camp work. Not in this army, apparently. The women even put up the soldiers’ tents for them! I laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of it.
Also, the orcs have been serving under human command because the humans once conquered the orcs, and the orcish queen made this concession. I can buy that idea, except that there’s no way this undisciplined army could possibly have conquered the orcs portrayed in this book. The orcs drill and move as a precisely oiled machine, but the humans–who never practice fighting–managed to defeat them in battle? I couldn’t buy it.
There’s more, but you get the idea. The writing itself is competent, but this book would probably have made more sense 25 years ago, when “feminist fiction” meant “man-hating.”
–Steven Harper Piziks
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