What do you do when your old evil ways simply won’t cut anymore? What if evil can do more? Be more?
That’s the question on the mind of Mordak, the leader of the goblin hordes of the Realms.
But then, once everything seems to be on the up and up, humans start showing up, taking over an abandoned wizard tower, which they bought from a savvy entrepreneur from another reality who’s really good with donuts. Yes, donuts.
This all sounds crazy, but you don’t know the half of it. Tom Holt’s An Orc on the Wild Side is a satirical fantasy fest with a cutting-edge that reflects our modern world and sensibilities all wrapped up in a hilarious narrative.
Let’s dig in a bit deeper.
An Orc on the Wild Side: A Brief, Spoiler-Free Summary
An Orc on the Wild Side is a strong, witty satire of real-life events placed in a fantasy world known as the Realm. Think equal parts Tolkien and Pratchett.
The story starts with Mordak, the goblin leader, who has recently enacted a policy called New Evil, which aims to make goblins better as a whole. One of Mordak’s new ideas, for example, is to create a female goblin (until now, all goblins were male — born out of the earth).The Miracle of Life, Goblin Edition.
While all of this is happening, humans from another reality have started to pour into the Realm, taking over an area by an old wizard’s tower and a few other settlements. These new humans, which are quite different than the ones the races of the Realms are used to, have laptops, guns, and all sorts of other more everyday items (like kitchen gadgets) that you and I take for granted. However, to the citizens of the Realms, these new inventions show just how dangerous these new humans can be.
Over the course of the novel, tensions between the new humans and the citizens of the Realm reach a tipping point and it’s slowly revealed how they came to this reality in the first place. It's then up to Mordak and the other leaders of the Realm to figure out what to do next.
A Seriously Funny Take on Old Tropes
In short, An Orc on the Wild Side is a combination of many other fantasy worlds. Holt leans heavily on Tolkien’s world-building with goblins, humans, dwarfs, elves, and even a Balrog-like creature, but he also imploys the wit of Terry Pratchett with great dialogue and absurd situations. For example, the Balrog-like thing is used as a furnace in one of the human’s homes (the humans think they actually have central heating).
I can’t help but to also draw a comparison to The Magical Kingdom of Landover series by Terry Brooks, as well, which sees a human from the modern world buy real-estate in a fantasy kingdom and then have to enact policies as its new king in order to restore the kingdom to its old glory. If you like that series, you’ll also really enjoy this novel.
One of the best things about An Orc on the Wild Side is that it leans into these fantasy tropes that have become quite stale over the years. After all, it seems like 99 percent of all ‘high’ fantasy works typically have the same races and the same problems (good vs evil, etc).
Holt, on the other hand, is able to push these tropes in new directions by simply amplifying them. For example, elves. The elves of the Realm are stuck up, rude, and basically racist. They look down on all others and aren’t afraid to say so. This leads to some pretty great moments in the book, which I won’t spoil here.
Like Pratchett, Holt also adds some modern flair into a world that is basically set in medieval times to add a hilarious punch to the story. One of my favorite plot lines follows a human named John the Lawyer (who, after opening up his own firm, has a sign made that mistakenly spells his name as John the Liar).
A lawyer. In a fantasy world. This combination is great for humor and also plays a central role in the overarching plot. There’s bickering about billable hours, real-estate zoning, many playful digs at lawyers in general, and many other moments that help the overall tale go down better.
A Satirical Look
I’m not going to spoil the ending of the novel here, but any review of this book would be incomplete without mentioning just how well Holt manages to satirize the real world inside the Realms.
First, you have humans from our reality buying real estate in another reality to escape property taxes and things of that nature. Then you have a female goblin, the first of her kind, who is stronger than all the male goblins combined (a nice feminist nod). Then, you have a dig at consumerism, the credit card industry, and more.
The biggest conceit of the novel comes at the very end. Everything wraps up and becomes clear why Holt wrote this, why it’s important to read right now, and showcases how fantastical satire can poke holes in current events.
In the end, An Orc on the Wild Side is a hilarious fantasy novel that pokes fun at established tropes and our very real world. Holt’s satire combines the wit and world-building into a tale packed with punchlines, allusions to real-life issues, and contemplates many aspects of modern-day living.
The only critique I have for the novel is that it ends too quickly. This is a rare takeaway for me as an editor of a magazine that values brevity. However, An Orc on the Wild Side left me wanting more. More time spent with these characters. A slower ending that drew out some of the situations. Things of that nature. Though I will admit, it’s always better to be left wanting more than being left exhausted.
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