Format: first hard cover edition, 2018
Reading Time: about 10.5 hours
One sentence synopsis: Jackal and his “Hoof” (gang) of half-orcs encounter challenges both natural and supernatural, which threaten not only the Hoof and the wilds, but also the entire kingdom of Hispartha.
I first learned about The Grey Bastards when it won the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) in 2016, beating out titles such as The Path of Flames and Paternus to claim the top spot. To win such a title, a book would have to be very good, but considering the subject matter, I wasn’t sure if it was something I’d like. I became very intrigued, however, when it was released in hard cover earlier this year. Although I was still unsure about it, I picked up a copy and decided to squeeze it in to the queue once I had met my reading goal. So my review is below, and contains a few spoilers, which I will point out. First, though, some other reviews around the web…
James Tivendale of Fantasy Book Review states: “The camaraderie and banter of the Bastards’ is top quality throughout and reminiscent of the crews in Malazan or The First Law. Orcs are often presented in fantasy as brainless brutes but with half human emotions thrown into the equation as presented here they often extremely likable and relatable. The majority of the characters are fully fleshed out and each have detailed motives and opinions…The worldbuilding is excellent throughout with the environments and its inhabitants brimming with details and intricacies. Although The Grey Bastards includes a fair amount of fantasy tropes including wizards, elves, orcs, halflings – it is crafted in such a way that combined everything feels new, fresh, exciting and original. There are many different nations, races, and factions each with their own religions, hierarchies, and histories which are all well-crafted, however, I still believe we’ve only just touched the surface of what The Lot Lands trilogy has to offer…This novel is filthy, dirty, and gritty but in the best possible way. It is dark fantasy done right. The Grey Bastards is extremely adult in nature featuring certain moments of vulgarity and also the swearing count is high from the very first page. There are a plethora of standout scenes dotted throughout this sharp brilliant debut. Ambushes, swamp-battles, and an assault made by beasts straight out of mythology are but a handful of occasions that spring to mind. There are many exquisite and dramatic confrontations but a scene that stood out the most to me was a conflict battled with wits and words rather than javelins and swords. The character dialogue throughout is unbelievably tight, not just for a debut novel but for any top fantasy novel. In The Grey Bastards, just when I thought I knew what was going to happen next I was blindsided and then the chaos, twists, drama, and unpredictability gave me an Orc-powered punch to the gut! French has composed a stunning opening chapter to his trilogy that is well worthy of the hype that has been garnering.”
Bill Capossere at Fantasy Literature writes: “It’s foul-mouthed, has a good amount of graphic language…sex, and violence, and much of that is aimed in ugly fashion at women…It was a close call as to whether it was a book for me and honestly, I’m not sure I would have finished it had it not been a review copy. Now, I don’t want to imply the author is espousing these views, and there’s an argument to be made that the author is highlighting the negative aspects of a culture. Plus, there are hints that things are changing. But I do think the execution muddies how these views are meant to be seen, and that is problematic. There’s a lot to like in French’s novel if you can look past all that, but I had great difficulty in responding positively at many points; it often took me out of the reading experience, and made me frequently wonder if it was all truly necessary…First and foremost, the characters are a lot of fun. Jackal, as the main character, is mostly likable and has an engaging personality and voice. Even better, and one of my favorite aspects of The Grey Bastards, is how he’s presented as someone who thinks he has all the right answers and motives. And in most novels, that’s where the characterization would end. But time and again Jackal is thrown for a loop (as is the reader), and his confident plotting thrown awry by learning that the world is more complex than his relatively short life experience has prepared him for…The worldbuilding is slowly revealed as The Grey Bastards goes on, and it’s still not fully laid out by the end; it’s more than a little thin, but clearly there’s a second book coming and one assumes we’ll learn more about it. The exposition can be clunky at times, and though the war/division of land at least explains why the regions are homogenous, I admit I’m a little tired of the one-race/one land set up and am ready for some fantasy that presents lands as more cosmopolitan…Plot-wise the action is vibrant, fast, bloody, and deftly handled in terms of logistics. The entire book is also nicely paced and shows good balance and smooth transitions as it moves between fight scenes, chase scenes, political arguments, and more intimate one-on-one conversations. A few cliché moments pop up, as do some a few unexpected twists to balance them out. Dialogue is quite well done for the most part, save the aforementioned language, misogynistic, homophobic “bro talk” moments.”
Finally, Writer Dan at Elitist Book Reviews opines: “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…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…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.”
All the bloggers above make excellent points…I can’t say I really disagree with any of it. I guess I’m done here.
Yes, the story is trope-ridden, and yes it is full of cursing, homosexual jokes, misogynist material, and a few sex scenes. However, it also has some positive things going for it. The worldbuilding is superb. French has captured the contrasts in the badlands perfectly…from territorial battles to banding together against a common foe, from humans that seem to be one thing but are actually different, from dangerous elves on one side to dangerous orcs on the other. Now imagine all that, in a setting that is a cross between a medieval village and the old west of America. French has put a lot of thought into how the half-orcs would eek out a living in a land with limited resources – what kind of ideals would drive the Hoof, what the roles of everyone would be, and the constant threat they live under that requires a violent response. It’s really quite brilliant.
On the other hand, I didn’t quite appreciate the characters quite as much as my fellow bloggers did. Most are a little too one-dimensional, although there are some standouts like the wizard Crafty and the mysterious Hoodwink. Jackal himself is likable, and his flaws of ignorance and overconfidence, as Bill states above, make for great characterization…things often don’t go the way Jackal plans them, and he discovers that he doesn’t know half of what he thinks he knows. However, Writer Dan is spot on when he says that we don’t always know why Jackal does something – he just does it, and there’s not enough insight into his thinking.
The plot takes some interesting twists and turns, often in directions I wasn’t expecting. There were at least a few times when I had no idea where the story was headed, but even seemingly random events all tie together nicely by the end. The pace is fairly brisk, never really bogging down, as scenes which are not driven by action either have crisp dialog, or tension as events build up, especially at “the table”, which almost reminds me of the Knights of the Round Table, if the knights were ax-throwing half-orcs that rode giant boars instead of horses. There are a few deaths at the end of the story, and two of those were lacking a bit in emotion (maybe that’s by design), but the third had a big impact on me and made me a little sad.
As Bill infers, at times the swearing and sexual innuendos seem a bit – I don’t want to use the word gratuitous here, perhaps overused is more appropriate – and so one of the same things that makes the story fairly unique also holds it back a little, as it is occasionally jarring and causes the reader to focus on that aspect instead of the story itself. As to the misogynist material, I’m a bit conflicted. On one hand you don’t want to pretend that those types of things don’t happen, as they surely did in the American west near the end of the 19th century or in medieval times. It feels like something that would truly be present in a half-orc society. On the other hand, that doesn’t make it a pleasant reading experience, and a writer treading that slippery slope can really struggle with it and risk alienating readers, as my review of Glen Cook’s Port of Shadows can attest to. Ultimately I have to say that while it’s not a good choice for the author to make, here French has defined it as part of his half-orc society – it is a cultural norm. In this manner, it’s still possible for the story to overcome such unpopular views.
And to a large degree, The Grey Bastards does just that – the good outweighs the bad enough to make it a good read. Between the unpredictable path of the plot, to the fine worldbuilding and the fast pace, The Grey Bastards has a lot to offer. I never felt like I wanted to put the book down and walk away, and I very much enjoyed many aspects of the story, in spite of the negatives. I’ll definitely spring for a sequel if French decides to write one.