Orconomics by J. Zachary Pike
Orconomics by J. Zachary Pike does one of my favorite things in comic fantasy. It takes fantasy tropes and shows what kind of infrastructure it takes to make them work. All those aspects of fantasy that we accept as part of the genre, but wouldn’t possibly fly in a realistic setting can become hilarious when when there are accountants and bureaucrats making them possible.
In this case, capitalism comes to fantasyland. A sizeable chunk of the economy is the Hero industry. Professional heroes are part of a guild and assigned ranks (which are suspiciously like character levels), and they take out contracts for a cut of the treasure. They are also backed by a whole investment system. Bankers and investors take out stakes in each adventure, funding them for an expectation of a strong return when the quest is successful. Mixed in with the main action, we get behind-the-scenes glimpses of that side of the industry.
“This hoard was projected to be valued at fifty thousand giltin, Mr. Snithe.” Snithe had clearly been expecting this line of questioning.
“We had it assessed, Mr. Poldo. Sent a hoard adjuster out and everything.”
“He never came back.”
“And you didn’t see that as a problem?”
“It’s usually a good sign, sir. The most deadly monsters have usually done the most pillaging, you see. So when a beast takes down a well-trained hoard adjustor, it’s generally expected to have more valuable loot.”
There are two problems with this system. One, the “natural resource” of monster hoards has been drying up as the heroes over-hunt. Two, Shadowkin (golbins, orcs, etc) are integrating into society, which reduces the opportunities available for monsters to collect new hoards for heroes to reclaim. The system is unsustainable and the market is on the verge of collapse.
The heroes aren’t exactly good people, either. They take a very mercenary attitude towards quests and loots, and the law gives them an excess of leeway when it comes to crimes committed while questing. It’s a corrupt system, and in some ways, the heroes are no more heroic than collections agents. This passage sums up the economy fairly well, in the aftermath of a heroic quest to slay some goblins on a farm.
“I …” The farmer shook his head and stared out at his ravaged fields. The ground was littered with green corpses and ruined crops. “I thought the loot would pay your fee. Thought there’d be some left over for me, too. Heard that’s how a man can get rich nowadays. Find some foes, claim the contract, get a cut of the loot. Barten Mander had a griffin take his cow, and he bought hisself three acres with his cut of the hoard.” He turned back to the hero, his eyes filling with tears and futile rage. “And then you come in, you ruin my farm, you take all the food in my stores and you tell me that’s the loot! You rob me, give me half my stuff back, and charge me for it!”
“No, the Goblins in your basement robbed you,” corrected the warrior. “We took it from them. That’s what loot is.”
“It came from my house!”
“Where else do you think loot comes from?” hollered the hero, finally losing patience with the old man.
For most of the novel, this aspect is part of the setting and featured in interludes. The main plot revolves around Gorm, a grizzled, disgraced veteran hero as he is caught up in a new contract that stands to restore his place in the Guild. His job is to accompany Niln, an incompetent prophesied hero to reclaim some stolen Elven treasure (that was in turn stolen from Orcs) and determine who gets to keep it. They’re both the finders and the scapegoats, ensuring that the government can’t be held responsible for the controversial decision of handing over the treasure to the Elves or Orcs. They wander into a conspiracy from there.
Gorm is a fascinating character. He reminds me a lot of Marvel’s Wolverine. He’s a Dwarf berserker and a bit of an anti-hero, quick to attack and vicious in a fight. He’s also a seasoned veteran and has a great deal of wisdom and experience when it comes to fighting and questing. He very quickly positions himself as the mentor and de facto leader of his team, while allowing Niln to take the spotlight. Like Wolverine, he is fiercely protective of the helpless and the innocent, including Gleebek, a goblin he took on as a squire in a rare act of mercy. Also like Wolverine, his gruff and barbaric demeanor masks a thoughtful and conflicted mind. Here’s him giving a pep talk.
“Oh … that. Just survive. Live through enough quests, and you’ll rank up. For a strong heroine with your kind of magic, that’s the easy part. But if you do that long enough, eventually you learn that your job isn’t about being self-sufficient in the wild or defending the weak or the pursuit of justice. Really, we just kill things for money. And when that finally starts to sink in, you face the hard part of professional heroics: the big questions.”
“The big questions?”
“Yeah. Is there more to life than just killing and looting? Are we more than just numbers in some Guild Master’s ledger, statistics written on our license? And the big one, the one that haunts you every night on the job: Why are we doing this anyway?”
Filling out the team, we have Gaist, a mute and intimidating weapons-master tied to Gorm’s shameful past; Kaitha, another fallen hero with a secret; Laruna and Jynn, bickering mages; and Heraldin, the bard who is definitely not a thief pretending to be a bard.
The humor comes from the dysfunctional party dynamics (one of my favorite tropes), the absurdity of the setting that I dwelled on already, and the riffing on Dungeons and Dragons style questing (to the point that you could perhaps classify it as LitRPG-lite). We also see some direct satire of the 2008 Recession and the opioid crisis. It’s worth noting that the book is more front-loaded with humor. As is fairly common with Comic Fantasy, once we get toward the end, the book raises the stakes and adds drama in a way that doesn’t leave much space for jokes. This is also the first book in a series, and while it’s a complete story, the world is left in a very interesting state by the end and is clearly setting up for the sequel.
Orconomics gets a full recommendation from me.
Full Disclosure: Pike and I are both members of The Independent Guild of Fools, a loose association of comic fantasy authors. His membership did not affect my opinion of his book; rather, my opinion of his book affected the outcome of his petition to join.