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Bodyguard of Lightning - Volume One of Orcs: First Blood by Stan Nicholls (Orion Millennium, £9.99, 298 pages, trade paperback; published 25 February 1999. Mass market paperback, £5.99, published 28 October 1999.)

cover scan In the beginning there was a badly drawn map with silly names in a hard-to-read font.

Then there was naff poetry (a "traditional war band marching song" if you must know).

And finally, Bodyguard of Lightning opens with a blow-by-blow account of a battle which ends with the orcish warband seizing a mysterious cylinder from their enemy. The cylinder is pretty soon lost, becoming a plot token that gives the orcs something to fight battles over for the rest of the book (and the books to follow).

In short, anyone going into this novel with their prejudices on full alert isn't going to be particularly surprised by what they find. The subversive black humour hinted at in the brilliant fairy-eating scene previewed elsewhere in infinity plus only rarely rears its head and we're left with a standard fantasy battle adventure featuring stock fantasy figures (orcs, trolls, dwarves, dragons) in off-the-peg fantasy settings (some plains here, some mountains here, a desert here, a forest here) told in an incongruous mix of purple cod-medieval prose and modern slang (a "my lady" here and a "crazy bitch" there).

At least the quest for the mystery objects (pretty soon we learn that the first cylinder is one of a set -- clearly a single quest wouldn't support an entire series of books) gives the book some kind of onward thrust, but before long the endless pages of battle scenes get wearing. The detailed descriptions of who slashed or clubbed what reads like an unintended parody of a football commentary. And now, back to the studio...

But, then, how should one really review a book like this? There's no point comparing it to Tolkien, or Peake, or even Donaldson. From a quick glance at the cover, looking like any other Warhammer-type gaming book, this looks distinctly like an astute piece of marketing, rather than just another bad fantasy novel. Bodyguard of Lightning is no more than a straightforward action-adventure fantasy, wearing its heart on its sleeve (with all the gore that implies...).

Will the fourteen year-old fantasy gamers who buy this kind of thing care that it's been done far better so many times before? Will they mistake its borrowings for great originality simply because they haven't read much else? Will they care that so many of the plot turns depend on strokes of good luck or sheer stupidity?

Will they even care that it's not a complete novel, that the thing builds, in its own chaotic way, towards a climax and then ends in a cliffhanger that's just a--

Review by Keith Brooke.

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© Keith Brooke 9 May 1999