I’ve read only a handful of books by Adrian Tchaikovsky so far, but enough to expect a change in style and narrative perspective in each new work I pick up, and Ogres is no different, indeed. And while it would be difficult to pin this story down to a specific genre, there is the right amount or sheer weirdness in it that I feel it would be appropriate to classify it in one of its own.
Ogres starts like a fantasy tale, both in descriptions and mood: Torquell is the son of the village headman, and is what’s usually termed as a ‘lovable rogue’; he’s known for his scarce attitude toward learning or following in his father’s footsteps and even more for his reckless pranks, which are more often than not viewed with indulgent annoyance and the hope that he might one day grow into his expected role. Even his forays into the forest visiting the outlaws led by a certain Roben (here the tongue-in-cheek authorial divertissement is quite plain) is viewed as nothing more than the kind of youthful enthusiasm Torquell will one day outgrow. Hopefully.
But such an idyllic setting is marred as soon as we learn about the ogres: the real rulers of the world, the Masters everyone must obey and pay homage – and taxes – to. Ogres are bigger and meaner than actual humans (or monkeys, as they are scornfully called by their masters), their rule of the land a divinely bestowed right, their powers and appetites larger than life – sometimes extending to human flesh. The arrival of Sir Peter, the village landlord, with his son Gerald, is the spark that will ignite once again Torquell’s fiery temper, leading him to an act that will forever change his life and propel him on a journey of discovery and change.
It’s with the appearance of the Ogres that the questions about this world start popping up: what, until that point, looked like a rural fantasy setting, moves toward a more modern territory with the appearance of cars, teeming cities and clearly advanced technology, so that I wondered about the Ogres’ nature and the true narrative placement of the story. Should it be considered a parallel, dystopian reality, or a SF story in which the Ogres are nothing more than aliens ruling the enslaved humans? Adrian Tchaikovsky dances around this issue for a long time, offering small details that manage to fill a little – but never completely – the picture: that is, until Torquell himself has gathered all the clues and finally arrives at the dreadful answer.
Torquell’s evolution, as a person, is the backbone of this novella, which feels quite tightly packed with information despite its brevity: he goes from happy-go-lucky, carefree youth to reluctant hero to charismatic leader, embracing the knowledge and thirst for learning that he had always spurned in the past, the process turning from a small pebble to an unstoppable avalanche and mirroring his rise as a leader with a growing following that threatens the status quo. His journey allows the reader a closer look at this world, one where the huge social divide between the Ogres and their human subject is borne out of exploitation and fear, a world where failure to perform one’s assigned tasks results in savage mistreatment at best, or ends on an ogre’s table at worst. There are passages in which Torquell witnesses teeming slums, filled with hopeless people being worked to death, which might remind the readers of some Dickensian description of the industrial revolution, and others in which ogres fight senseless wars using humans as chess pieces on a board, their equally senseless deaths being nothing more than a game played by their masters.
All these revelations, everything that Torquell witnesses and learns, create an expanding picture that moves, slowly but surely, toward the final resolution, one that’s reached forging through a constant, oppressive sense of doom that is not lifted even when our “hero” amasses success after success, threatening the Ogres’ supremacy. If there is any glimmer of hope visible at the end of this story, it’s a very remote one, and heavily dependent on our nature as people and on the troublesome realization that it might ultimately drive us to the extremes – and their consequences – depicted in this story.
My last, but by no means least, consideration about Ogres concerns the author’s use of the second person throughout the narrative – an unusual method, granted, but one which for me confers a feel of immediacy to the story that made it more real, more tangible: and in the end, where we learn who is addressing Torquell with that constant “you”, we are hit with the final, most unexpected twist in the whole story, one that would be a huge understatement to call ’surprising’. And one that proved to be the proverbial “cherry on top” of an irresistible narrative “cake”. Superbly done indeed…