I just finished reading In the Company of Ogres, by A. Lee Martinez1. The essential plot line follows an individual named Ned (called ‘Never Dead Ned’), who is probably what I would consider an “anti-hero.” Ned is pretty much incompetent at everything in his life – he can’t really do anything well, or in many cases, even sub-par, with one exception – he can’t die. Or, rather, he can die (he’s actually pretty practiced at that), but for reasons that become clear later in the book, Ned doesn’t stay dead.
At the beginning of the book, Ned is an accountant for Brute’s Legion, an army of skilled and fearsome warriors. We get the impression that, while Ned isn’t extraordinarily good at being an accountant, he isn’t awful at it, either. He is transferred from this position to a command position in Ogre Company, which is a motley assortment of undisciplined characters that include a fire-breathing salamander, a shapeshifting goblin, several ogres (for which the company is apparently named), a promiscuous siren, and a bloodthirsty Amazon.
Ned isn’t quite sure how to handle this command position, and he is fairly disinterested in being a commander in general. As the story progresses, we learn more about Ned’s past, which leads to a confrontation that could ultimately destroy universes (yes, plural!). Ned is also the subject of essentially two female crushes, although he is oblivious to both of them. This situation adds humor and a bit of frustration to the novel. Frustration is felt by the reader (at least by me) on behalf of Ned’s two lovers’ feelings going not only unrequited, but unacknowledged. Add to this a plot to destroy Ned as a commander (in normal terms, this would mean killing the individual, but since Ned doesn’t stay dead, this becomes quite a conundrum), and there is a whole avenue of ridiculous humor to be explored.
Comparison to Other Works
I think that A. Lee Martinez’s writing style developed significantly in the year between the publishing of Gil’s All Fright Diner2 (his first novel) and In the Company Of Ogres. The writing seems to be more fluid in In the Company of Ogres, whereas in Gil’s All Fright Diner, it seemed to me that the author was still trying to determine his place in the set of amusing and ridiculous fantasy novels. With In the Company of Ogres, Martinez seems to blend well with other authors in this genre such as Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, and (in some cases) Neil Gaiman.
One thing I will say regarding the comparison between Gil’s All Fright Diner and In the Company of Ogres is that I actually thought the overall topic of Gil’s All Fright Diner was more interesting. I’m not exactly sure why, but it seems to me that when reading a fantasy novel, especially one that’s set in an era similar in style to Earth’s “middle ages” (e.g. weapons are mostly melee, farming is done by hand, communication done by carrier pigeon or other bird, etc…), magic, demons, monsters, etc… are all just expected. So, the fact that in Gil’s All Fright Diner, a novel set in a rural town in what appears similar to modern America, the two main characters are a vampire and a werewolf, is original and unexpected. Even more unexpected is the fact that nobody seems to give this a second thought!
Overall, I was pleased with the novel. I thought that the protagonist, in this case, Never Dead Ned, was interesting and developed in an unexpected way over the course of the novel. The novel was fairly funny, and it kept me interested throughout the book. I only have two criticisms about the book in general. One is that I thought the idea of the Mad Void – the supposed all-powerful demon asleep in Ned’s mortal shell – was somewhat hard to swallow, given that he had (some) difficulty defeating Rucka (a supposed smaller, or less-powerful demon). The Mad Void is introduced as a character that literally destroys universes for entertainment – that’s how powerful he is. On the other hand, he was somehow bound into a mortal form and trapped, as well as (almost) being defeated by Rucka. This sort of boggles my mind, and it might have been interesting to have a chapter on the back-history of the Mad Void either when he is first introduced, or perhaps at the beginning of the novel. Something that makes it clear how he was trapped in that shell originally, and why the Red Woman was assigned to watch him (rather than one of the magicians that originally trapped him) would have been useful.
The only other criticism I have of the novel is the idea of Ned’s autonomous left arm. I don’t think the idea is bad – in fact, I think it was a great idea that just wasn’t pushed quite hard enough. In the beginning, it’s introduced that Ned doesn’t have complete control over this arm, and my first reaction was “Oh boy, this is going to be funny later in the book.” There are some scenes where it enters in, such as in the pub when Ned first arrives at Ogre Company, but other than that, this plot device isn’t used much until the end of the book. I think it would have been really funny if it had gotten him into some strange troubles. I can see all kinds of jokes, especially given that there were two women chasing Ned, but Ned was somewhat oblivious to both of them. If the arm wasn’t oblivious, and had a mind of its own in situations like this, it would have been hilarious to see the reactions from Regina and Miriam as they get multiple signals from Ned – one of disinterest from Ned himself, but one of innate attraction from Ned’s left arm.
All in all, though, the book is definitely worth reading. I’m excited to see Martinez’s development as an author, and I’m looking forward to reading his other novels soon.