The Sorceress's Orc
Elaine Corvidae

Seeing as the news has been kinda a downer for me, on both the national and personal front, I've been doing a bit of comfort reading[1] ; and one of the advantages of the explosion of self-pubbing (besides allowing me to maintain the quantity and quality of working electronics to which I've become shamelessly accustomed) is that authors now have a relatively inexpensive way to get their particular slice of quirk out to readers, who, if they are willing to search hard enough to find that peculiarly satisfactory scratch for their readerly kink itch, can now enjoy said shared quirk without resorting to obscure and poorly reproduced mimeographed zines.

So far, so good: Elaine Corvidae's romance between a human magician and an orc warrior happens to fall into that ‘Beauty and the Beast’ category for me. (And I suppose we shall no longer need feminism when one automatically can't guess the sexes of the protagonists.)

I love the developing romance between Vervain and Riyu—that part's beautifully paced, and just hits the sweet spot of perfect comfort read for me. The scene in which Riyu and Vervain bond over a gorgeous model of an airship, technology lost generations ago, is sweet (and foreshadowing.) Frustratingly, however, I can't shelve it with the very best—Robin McKinley's Beauty, or Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion, the latter with which Orc shares some problematic racial undertones; but let's start with some more obvious problems.

Vervain de Giavolo is an older, successful witch whose demeanor and protected situation at a magical college reminds me more than a bit of various Hambly heroines (and their culturally deprecated magical abilities), especially Kyra the Red. To be sure, kudos go to Corvidae for featuring an older, greying protagonist, not to mention a historically ‘bad guy’ love interest. —It's not exactly a new idea[2] .

Orcs, in this story, are presumed to be stupid, violent, ravenous creatures barely able to speak in anything besides grunts. (They've tusks, pointed ears, and are green. Instead, ahem, of brown.) Riyu, it turns out, is not only articulate, honourable, and kind, he's also turned down a cushy apprenticeship as a precious metals worker to follow his brother into a mercenary troop, which is hired by the university administration to protect certain of its professors—particularly Vervain and her co-researcher, who are developing a sort of magical computer.

Right here we already have a number of problems, because what university has that kind of money? Or holds its teaching staff in that kind of esteem? That Vervain is a powerful mage is a partial argument, but she joined the academic sphere to get away from being a battlemage—the sort of asset that would command careful protection. —Plus, if the orcs are any good, then they can't be as stupid as everyone (including their earstwhile employers) assumes...mebbe they're really short on funds and take the job as a stopgap?

Vervain, like everyone else, assumes her new guard is stupid and brutish, but chance in the form of a rainstorm —and guilt for his being miserable and wet—throws them together in her apartment, and she actually gets to know her protector, discovering among other things that he takes his honour—the job of protecting her—seriously, is vegetarian by way of physiology, and is not only as bright as, but quite a bit more disciplined than, many of her students.

Shortly after the troop is hired, Vervain's co-researcher disappears amongst the destruction of their lab; the orc assigned to him dies (and is none other than Riyu's beloved older brother.) Riyu recovers remarkably quickly from the death of the one who inspired him to take on this life; the university equally remarkably can't be bothered to investigate the loss of their most important scientist, so Vervain volunteers to go search for him on her own, feeling that something is owed to her friend. Riyu, her teaching assistant, her best student (who is from the town's most influential family) and one guard set out to discover what happened to Emerald.

It's not terrifically convincing to me that someone living in a viciously cold region would be vegetarian—folks living in the Arctic circle eat a lot of meat; nor that any warrior's code could truly dull the grief of losing one's brother and companion; nor that a university would hire guards to protect its faculty, yet fail to follow up on the disappearance of same. The road trip bits work reasonably well, though Vervain has a real talent for setting everything on fire during her departures; the author needed to find some other methods for resolving the sticky wickets her characters find themselves in.

And then there are the clickers. These monsters are so much a ripoff from Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small series that I actually had to check that the names were different.[3] Particularly galling (for some reason) is the origin of one monster (which, like Pierce's is controlled by an enslaved human).

But perhaps most disappointing is the ultimately backward looking themes of the book: I've already alluded to how Vervain and her cohort leave a trail of destruction behind them; so *(spoiler! spoiler! spoiler!)*** when Vervain, returning to her birth-valley (where magic is utterly reviled) discovers an old—and functional—airship, the actual thing her beautiful & beloved model is based upon, and actually gets the thing running again, returning flight to her people for the first time in decades, does she and her cohort manage to bring it back to her university town to reconstruct the technology?

Of course not. They destroy it, and just as Riyu recovers remarkably quickly from his cherished brother's death, so too does Vervain from destroying a piece of history her relatives have kept safe, in secret, for nearly a century, despite rabid opposition of their community.

Here *endeth spoilers.***

Clearly the author is trying to write a book in which magic (like, one presumes, technology) is a tool for making people's lives better; in which good will between sophonts is to be celebrated, and bigotry deplored; yet the heroes rain destruction everywhere they go, and destroy technology they ostensibly cherish. Really, I wish a beta reader had pointed out these inconsistencies, because coping with them would have made for a stronger story.

Nevertheless, for all its flaws, The Sorceress's Orc stays on my shelves while other, more deserving volumes do not. In that sense, the book is a success.

[1]Still true, exactly three years later, to nearly the day: I created this page 04jan17, and started working on the week's collections of which this is one yesterday, 04jan2020

[2]One of my sibs courted his now-current wife of many years online in the guise of a half-orc, frex

[3]Pierce finished her series in 2002, and this book is copyright 2011, just in case you were wondering...