Orcs: Forged for War is the first graphic novel set in the fantasy universe created in Stan Nicholls’s Orcs novels. Lots of science fiction and fantasy series are adding graphic novels these days and some series pull it off better than others. Forged for War does pretty well. First off, it’s written by the novelist rather than by some unknown stand-in. Second, it’s an original story rather than a retelling of one of the novels. Third, it does a decent job of presenting the basic world-building information needed to orient new readers (like me) without getting so bogged down in exposition that the story loses momentum.
The Orcs books take place in a fantasy world very much in the tradition of Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons. However, as the title suggests, Nicholls focuses on the orcs rather than the humans and does an admirable job of reworking a stock fantasy villain into a relatable protagonist. His orcs are still rough, vicious, and deadly, but they’ve got personality and honor. For reasons that are not entirely clear, orc captain Stryke and his small warband are forced to serve a sorcerous queen. She’s some sort of humanoid monster and is at war with a bunch of murderous Puritan-inspired humans who won’t be happy until every non-human is dead. So the orcs are caught in the middle of a conflict between two unsympathetic powers and come out looking relatively good. It’s hard not to root for a bunch of social outcasts who repeatedly manage narrow victories against long odds. They kill a lot of humans (and various monsters), but don’t come across as evil as they’re just doing what they need to do to get by in a hard world.
There were a few elements I had a little trouble with as a new reader, but nothing too serious. Early in the book, a roll call that introduced twenty-five different characters with nothing but a name and a headshot for each was pretty overwhelming. I would have liked to know exactly why the orcs were working for the evil queen; they took so much abuse throughout the book that I couldn’t help but be curious why they didn’t just walk out. There’s a lone dwarf that works with the orcs, but there’s no explanation given for his presence. The dwarf and one of the orcs insult each other constantly in what is probably a fun antagonistic friendship in the novels but needs a little more development here. These are small problems, but they hold the writing back a bit.
The art is more solid than the writing. Heavy lines and blocky character designs capture an appropriate feeling a of barbaric savagery. Even the more complex fight scenes are presented clearly. The dragons, harpies, and other monsters manage to avoid looking completely familiar without becoming unrecognizable. The color scheme is drab, as you’d expect in a war story, but livened up with a lot of bright red blood and colorful magic. Altogether, it seems like Joe Flood has a lot of fun drawing crazy, gory fantasy.
Speaking of gore, this book is definitely for adults or older teens. Limbs get chopped off, heads get split open, guts get pulled out and sloshed around. There’s some swearing, a little nudity, and some drug use (though not a drug that exists in the real world). Younger teens would surely enjoy it, but their parents probably wouldn’t.
Orcs: Forged for War
by Stan Nicholls
Art by Joe Flood
First Second, 2011