A. Lee Martinez is going to be a great writer. He had a confident debut with Gil’s All Fright Diner which had great dialogue, a fun plot, and had new things to say in the horror and buddy action genre. It mixed zombie hunting with Joe R. Lansdale blue collar humor with small town charm, and it made me jumping up and down for his sophomore effort In the Company of Ogres, which I’m here to tell you is mostly a success.
The main character here is an average person named Never Dead Ned, a man who is unexceptional in every way except for the fact that he has died forty-nine times, and has been resurrected by a mysterious magical being every time. He’s a soldier with a perfectly average and boring job of balancing the books for Brute’s Legion. Just when he finds his niche in accounting, he is immediately transferred to Ogre Company. Ogre Company is a rowdy band of orcs, goblins, trolls, elves, treefolk(think Ents), humans, and obviously ogres. It also happens to be the most undisciplined, neurotic, and hardest drinking, unit in the whole Legion. He now has six short months to whip these sad sacks into fighting shape. Or else. This task is further complicated by the fact that Ned is pretty much terrible at every aspect of being a soldier.
The writing is fast and furious, the jokes coming left and right, with most of them scoring a bull’s-eye. Martinez knows the genre of fantasy well and loves to turn them over whenever possible. If anything, it reminded me of Shaun of the Dead because Martinez is interested in character first and making them relatable so you give a crap if they survive the many conflicts. He has such oddballs as the 19 inch tall demon king, the chain-smoking treefolk, a 25 pound goblin that is a daredevil pilot of beast 30 times his size, an insecure but overly assertive Amazon, and a blind oracle who smells the future, and that’s not even half the cast. There is some beautifully descriptive writing on display in Ogres, but Martinez’ talent lies in the small moments like two friends talking about what love is and how to tell someone you like your feelings or other funny moments where a bugler is given tips on how to add more pizzazz, oomph and, and shebang into his playing. It is a wonderfully funny and human novel, and the characters are like the people you might run into in your everyday life. This is rare in fantasy novels where the majority of writers are concerned more with building a huge world to stick their stock characters in to inevitably go on some kind of quest.
Which, ironically, is why I had a problem with the book, not enough to kill my enjoyment, but the problems did give me pause. Martinez sets the world up as one where races have mostly gotten over war and live in peace. So why is getting Ogre Company back in shape so important? The world isn’t developed enough to explain why that one particular company is so essential. Why not disband it and fill the fort with competent soldiers? Another problem I had was when a character kills Ned for absolutely no reason so Martinez can get most of his other characters much needed screen time. I enjoyed these scenes quite a bit and a less talented writer wouldn’t have been able to recover from sloppy writing like that, but it felt clumsy.
So why does Ned die so much and come back? Without warning, the Red Woman who has brought him back so many times launches into Ned’s Secret Origin which had some plot hole elements that made me scratch my head in confusion. It also surprised me that the admittedly easygoing Ned took the news of what he really is so calmly and well. It reminded me of the “Drugs are BAD, Mmm’Kay?” scene in South Park where the kids don’t ask any questions and just accept that answer.
With such convention breaking characters like the Evil Wizard Belok allergic to magic (It seems to gradually turn him into some kind of animal. The final transformation of his allergic reactions is a riot), a siren who can’t sing very well, an overly polite two-headed Ogre (Think The Goofy Gophers from Looney Tunes), and number crunching bureaucrats who are demons from Hell, it disappointed me when Martinez used such old and over-used fantasy elements like the self-sacrificing magical guardian and the seemingly normal protagonist’s great destiny.
In the Company of Ogres is a very good novel with some great humanity, natural humor, and writing. The final battle is absolutely Kirby in how cosmic it is and is written beautifully. I whole-heartedly recommend this novel, but I’m glad he wrote the brilliant Gil’s All Fright Diner first because it just misses the mark of brilliant, but I’m excited to see A. Lee Martinez grow as a writer; he’s a guy to watch closely.
READ IF YOU LIKE: The Princess Bride
BETTER THAN: Robert Asprin’s Phule’s Company
NOT AS GOOD AS: Shaun of The Dead (Different genres yes, but both strived and succeeded in enhancing their genres by humanizing their genres so well.)