The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French

  • Author: Jonathan French
  • Publisher: Crown
  • Publication Date: June 2018

 

The Grey Bastards was the winner of the 2016 SPFBO (Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off) contest hosted by Mark Lawrence. And wow. I can definitely see why it did so well. And I can most certainly see why it is now being traditionally published. It harkens back to that almost D&D style while offering a fresh take on things. (Just as a warning: This book does mention rape but does not show it. It also includes a few instances of a tad vulgar humor.)

Throughout the book, we follow Jackal’s perspective via 3rd person limited POV. He is a half-orc abandoned at birth and raised in the Lot Lands. And he is a Grey Bastard–a member of a group of half-orcs (one of about 9 groups) whose overall job is to protect the Lot Lands from the thicks (what they call orcs). They ride on hogs they affectionately call barbarians. These are loyal creatures with names such as Hearth and Ugfuck.

 

300px-arrowbattle
Artist’s rendering (via https://zelda.gamepedia.com/Bullbo)

 

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Artist’s rendering (via https://zelda.gamepedia.com/Bullbo)

 

(But really, the bullbos from Twilight Princess are a pretty accurate representation of the barbarians.)

The Grey Bastards is best gone into without a lot of information because it’s a book where the plot slowly reveals its different layers. A man is killed. A foreign wizard shows up. An elf is rescued. The chief is old and needs to be replaced. These seemingly disconnected things become clearer as the novel progresses.

The pacing is excellent, owing to the wonderful writing. The book is able to meld both fast-paced action and slower-paced hesitant moments (such as when something suddenly attacks the Kiln in the middle of the night) seamlessly.

Another aspect of the writing is how we only see Jackal’s slightly unreliable narrator (UN) position yet still get a full cast of well-developed characters. While Jackal isn’t knowingly a UN, the world and people around him are. As the book progresses, he learns where he can place his trust and how he can grow better. We see the struggles with Fetching, the only female half-orc (and possibly one of the best characters in the book) as her own narrative is seen through Jackal’s eyes.

Something I wasn’t that big a fan of is the world-building. We visit many different places, from Hispartha, to the Kiln, the Sludge Man’s domain, etc. And yet none of it felt connected to me. It was like we were getting these wonderfully intricate paintings of each individual place and yet each individual piece didn’t really fit with the others. In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor flaw for me–especially since the book seems to be more focused on Jackal and his goings-on. In a sense, I felt that we saw the trees in glorious detail but didn’t really see the forest as a whole.

Overall, though, if you’re looking for a classic-style fantasy filled with orcs; half-orcs; humans; centaurs; and elves, this is the one for you. It has great characters and writing.  Unapologetically gritty, this book will keep you up all night reading. Live in the saddle. Die on the hog.

[I received a digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

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