King's Property

Recently I received a copy of a novel by Morgan Howell called King’s Property, which is the first part of a trilogy entitled Queen of the Orcs. It’s been a while since I’ve read a straight-up fantasy novel, and its standard paperback size was an encouragement. I hoped for a fast, enjoyable read, and that’s what I got.

The story follows Dar, a young woman who is shipped off to the King’s army by her peasant father to act as a serving wench for the worst duty in the military: the orcs’ regiment. The action revolves around Dar’s attempts to carve out a life that doesn’t involve becoming dependent upon the fickle attentions of the foot soldiers. Since Dar is branded on the forehead as the King’s Property she can’t run away because she’ll be beheaded for bounty. Sleeping with soldiers is what’s expected, since that’s the only form of power available to the women who are slave labour for the army.

Dar goes against the prejudices of her kind and becomes friendly with an orc, Kovok-mah, and learns his language. Through her wits and this unusual alliance Dar manages to keep her dignity intact despite sustained abuse and the malign intentions of one of the important lieutenants in the army.

The orcs come from an entirely different culture to that of the humans: it’s a matriarchy where the female orcs are venerated by the males for their connection to nature and their wisdom. The males orcs fight with the humans on behalf of their Queen, but otherwise the orcs are kept isolated because of their fearsome features and strength. Only the women are allowed to interact with them – a job most of the women fear because of the orcs’ unpredictable temperament. Dar uses this ignorance of orc behaviour to her advantage to find protection from brutality. This subversive alliance does not go unnoticed, and as the army regiments gear up for a series of battles, Dar’s enemies manoeuvre to rid themselves of her and the orcs.

What’s most interesting about the book is its focus on the underclasses and dispossessed in a feudal society. It’s a realistic and unromantic view of what it’s like to be a low-born powerless woman in a hierarchical and patriarchal society. Those at the bottom–men and women–scrabble for every advantage. Dar finds her niche by aligning with a people who are treated as pariahs by humans. In this way the author is making a distinct parallel between the “other” race of orcs, and women. The monsters in this world, women and orcs, will only survive when they band together to escape the oppressive hegemony. I’m sure Howell is going to make the point in later books that a matriarchy can be just as tyrannical as a patriarchy. If a society is built upon inequality than someone, or some caste, will suffer.

Very few men in the book demonstrate anything beyond selfishness and cruelty, but later in the book a romantic interest is suggested to Dar in the form of Severn, the cavalryman. It’s true to Dar’s character that she is suspicious of Severn’s motives, since in her experience kindness always masks an agenda. Dar begins to develop some slight prophetic skill as she becomes enmeshed in the orc culture and mindset. Thankfully, the book indicates that her ability is bestowed (or developed) because of her actions, and not because of some fabled birthright. If in another book I discover it’s all part of some master prophecy I will be disappointed with the series. What’s important about Dar is that she makes her own way in the world due to her determination and refusal to think of herself as anything other than a person deserving basic respect.

The story moves at a brisk pace, which keeps the reader’s attention. At times the prose slips and becomes a little too loose for my liking, but generally Howell doesn’t lapse into fantasy-speak too often. However, by the end of the novel I didn’t want to read the word “tup” again. The orc language seemed to be handled in a decent fashion, but I’m not a linguist. I liked how the elements of the orc culture unfolded slowly. It’s rare for me to say this but I think Howell could use a tad more description and world-building in his later books as there wasn’t a lot of detail about the dynamics of Dar’s world.

Del Rey has released the subsequent books at a brisk pace, so there’s no waiting for the sequels. Book II, Clan’s Daughter, is already available, and the final novel, Royal Destiny, just went on sale.