Review: The Grey Bastards
There are times that I grow tired of all the profanity and sexual content in books these days. I might have added violence here as well, but there is a part of me that realizes I’ve become fairly inured to it over the years, and as Dave Matthews has said, “I’m still a boy,” and boys do love to see a fight. 🙂 Still, it makes me happy to find a great book that avoids all the potentially offensive content. Now, up front, you should probably understand that this is definitely NOT one of those books. Yeesh no. Not by a long shot. But it was a story that made me think about the concept, because there was just so dang much of it. Now, I know many of you will likely be crying foul right now amidst references to all my “Books We Loved” reviews by authors like Joe Abercrombie and Sam Sykes. What I need to emphasize though is that in those cases it is the author’s ability to tell great story with great characters that I love, and rest of everything only plays second fiddle in comparison. But sometimes, one or two of those second fiddles can become kinda loud.
THE GREY BASTARDS (Amazon), written by Jonathan French, is one of the novels we received from Mark Lawrence during the second and final round of the 2016 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-off. I read it first amongst the pack of the second round, and I must somewhat meekly admit to cheating slightly, as I started reading it after waiting for three or four scores to be posted on Mark’s SPFBO summary page and then picking the story with the highest marks. I know. Naughty me. By doing so, I was hoping to get a good sense for where the likely “best” story of the bunch would sit on my ratings scale, and thus let me know the range over which all the rest would land as well.
Jackal is a half-orc living with his brothers and sister of the Grey Bastards “hoof” in the badlands that separate the human kingdom of Hispartha from the lands of the orcs. They are led by the plague-ridden Claymaster in defending against orc incursion, living by the motto, “LIVE IN THE SADDLE, DIE ON THE HOG”. Their mounts are mighty hogs with massive tusks, explosive ferocity, and a surprising amount of loyalty. Despite the long rule of the Claymaster, Jackal has his sights set on being chief, but there are more forces at work than simple ambition that will guide them all to a bloody conclusion.
The world-building French has done here is pretty good, despite employing the fairly cliched races of orcs, centaurs, halflings, and elves. The story begins fairly tight, focusing solely on the half-orc hoof and small bands of human soldiers that occasionally come into the badlands called the Lot. This is the world of the hoof, and so little more matters. The humans don’t want them around, the orcs are too violent to abide, and any time a half-orc is sired the child is given to the hoof to raise. As all of the half-orcs are sterile, this is the only way to grow their numbers, and this fact lends to an overabundance of sexual freedom that has obviously defined their lives. It is present in every aspect of their life; from action, to thought, to speech and definitely humor. As such, women are debased as objects and left to raise what children are left with them, and the males play the strong and powerful. As the story progresses though, the world is opened to us as Jackal comes to understand the world, and its history, that surrounds him. There is the history of Hispartha, of the war against the orcs, and the story of the half-orcs themselves that Jackal comes to learn. It’s opened slowly and expertly as the story progresses, and even though the beginning fostered a number of questions in me, nearly all of them are handled by the end of the story.
Secondary characterization was really well done. Nearly every secondary character, in a list of at least a dozen, each have at least one defining moment that solidified for me just who they were and made them believable. Jackal’s best friends, Oats the big male thrice (3/4ths orc) and Fetching the single female half-orc strong enough to earn a place in the male-dominated hoof, were just great. Oats’s loyalty and Fetching’s strength come into play multiple times throughout the story as they were each tested by the actions of others. These two led the pack, but so many of the other half-orcs in the hoof, the wizard Crafty that shows up to observe them, the halfling priest, and nearly all the rest of them were great. Even when the cast of characters in a scene jumped dramatically, which happened a time or two, French handled it with seeming ease and made it easy to follow who was who.
From a plotting standpoint, French also did a marvelous job. Right from the get-go, there is conflict and consequence and decision and action. One piece moves us to the next and the next, never lagging in its pacing or level of tension. Several times I was surprised by what happened, and the consequences of those happenings. Seriously good stuff here. And remember our most recent editorial on Balance? French hits all three of the trifecta in this one, and does a great job of balancing them all.
There was one point though that really held the story back for me. About halfway through the book, I realized that it had lost some steam, but the story was still moving along at a great clip, so it took me a while to figure out what might be going wrong. Eventually, I realized that I was losing my excitement for the story because of how little characterization there was of the main character, Jackal. Once I realized that, I started looking for those pieces that define character for me, and I found they were almost completely absent. This was something else that really surprised me because I had so enjoyed the beginning of the book and literally ALL of the other characters. But I realized at that point that I really didn’t know Jackal much at all and he should really be the character that I know the best. I mean, I knew that he wanted to be chief of the hoof, but other than that he was mostly a blank. So, I was losing that drive to read more of the story because I didn’t understand his motivations: why he’s doing the things he’s doing, or why he’s making the choices he’s making.
Dark, gritty, and well written, THE GREY BASTARDS is high fantasy as its finest. And this from an unpublished author. Tsk tsk.
The kicker is that POV characterization should be the easiest thing to put into a story. Especially if you’re already doing such a bang-up job of nearly everything else on the docket. Aside from fixing this glaring void in the story, my only other suggestion on how the story might be made better would be to dial back the profanity/sexuality some and try to bring in a little more breadth-of-topic to the humor. I don’t know what the attempted publication history of this novel is. Mr. French has another series that he’s currently working on, which started with the first novel he ever self-published, and this novel was only a stand-alone take-a-break novel. Honestly, I would think that if the issues with POV characterization and offensive content were handled (maybe even not the content one), this could easily be a novel that any publishing house would be proud to publish. Any of them.
After having read through all of the rest of the second round novels in the SPFBO though, I can easily say that this novel is the best of the bunch. And by a goodly amount at that. Great Job, Mr. French. Can’t wait to read your next one.
- Recommended Age: 18+
- Language: Lots and lots...
- Violence: Lots and, um, lots...
- Sex: Lots and... are you seeing a pattern here?
Series links: The Lot Lands
**EDIT (19 June 2018): Jonathan’s book got picked up for tranditional publication! Release date today. Also, I updated the review to the new cover photo.