“You’re bleeding,” Fetch repeated, “and I am awakened very early. Someone is going to die.”
For the final of my #spfbowinners reads in the month of July 2022, I took on the blood-soaked adrenaline rush that is “The Grey Bastards” by Jonathan French. This book won 2016’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO), and is the first book “The Lot Lands ” series, which has received plenty of acclaim, including a coveted Kirkus Star for the final book in the trilogy.
I had heard this series was dark, bloody, and brilliant, so I got ready to saddle up and enjoy the ride.
What a ride it was.
“Live in the saddle. Die on the hog.”
This is the mantra of the eponymous Grey Bastards. The Grey Bastards are just one of many outlaw bands of half-orcs who roam the wasteland known as the Lot Lands. The Lot Lands divide the realm of humankind from the full-blooded orcs, who are almost unbeatable killing machines, intent on wiping out all other races, especially humans.
The half-orcs, for centuries, have been the protectors of humans. But it’s a thankless job, as the humans detest their mixed-race protectors as much as their main enemies, the orcs themselves. Riding giant razorback hogs, who are as much pet and faithful companion as they are mounts, imbued with part-orc-like strength and fortitude, lustful, bloodthirsty, and cunning, the half-orcs live a brutal and often short existence in the Lot Lands, which is a place ravaged by orcs, powerful and mysterious elves, demented and terrifying centaurs, wizards, demons, and other deadly creatures.
The protagonist, Jackal, is a young, charismatic, and clever leader in his band, but he has bigger dreams, and aspires to the overall command of the Grey Bastards. He thinks the current commander, the revered Claymaster, is past his prime, lacks vision, and is holding progress of the clan back. Thus, it’s time for a new boss – Jackal.
Backed by his friends, Oats and Fetching, Jackal plots his moves to oust the Claymaster, but a strange sorcerer, an elven girl, and Jackal’s own friends may have other plans for the upstart half-orc.
The characters, both human and non-human in this book were fabulously well-drawn, but you probably won’t like many of them. Still, they are highly authentic, and will leave an impression. Among some of them, their love for each other – especially among those who are bound by clan ties – their sense of duty, honour, and fairness, and adoration of their beloved hogs will make them somewhat more endearing.
Yet for the most part, they are all pretty ruthless, depraved, and many have no compunction at double-crossing to further their own ends. The Lot Lands is a difficult place to survive, and its inhabitants seem to be products of their environment. For the half-orcs, typically born of Orcs forcing themselves on humans, ostracized by both human and Orc parentage, obliged to protect the humans who look down on them, and fight the orcs who see them as prey, they don’t have the easiest of livelihoods. Their motivations and actions seem more comprehensible when their background is considered.
The protagonist, Jackal, is an interesting combination of naked ambition, guile, curiosity, passion, courage, and a streak of goodness hiding underneath a pretty messy overall character. Oats was my fav – he seemed to be, if not the smartest of the bunch, the most genuine, noble, and honest of the bunch.
There were plenty of themes to keep me interested in “The Grey Bastards”, such as love, loss, loyalty, family, devotion, and freedom. To be clear, this book is not for the faint of heart: it is bloody, violent, and there will be some moments that will rip your heart out, even for characters that you may not otherwise like. Of course, that is the skill of a great writer, to make a reader care about the fate of unlikeable characters, and French manages to do this very well.
I loved the worldbuilding in the book, and the backstory of how the situation where the half-orcs became the last bastion of defence was very engrossing. The diverse creatures and races, the impenetrable fortress of the Kiln, the soft magic, were all features of the book that really worked for me.
Here is what may or may not work well for some readers. First, the humour is often vulgar (but funny as hell), rife with obscenities. If you don’t like your bawdy jokes, look elsewhere. The fight scenes are marvellous, and there is action aplenty. With marauding orcs and centaurs, dark magic, and massive razorbacks, the visceral clashes are unforgettable, and were some of my favourite parts of the book.
Second, perhaps the most problematic part of the book is that there are a lot of crude, demeaning, and outright sexist and misogynistic terms and references to women, and sexual violence against women referenced, or inferred. Females do not fare well in the lot lands. They are essentially either prostitutes, chattel, or worse, with few exceptions. Even the main character, who would otherwise be likely seen as morally grey, in perhaps the book’s most disturbing scene for me, at one time horiffically ponders raping another character.
But I do not believe at all that this is the viewpoint of the author, or else I would not be allotting the book this type of high rating and endorsement – instead I would have likely DNF’d the book, which is something I rarely if ever do. Why don’t I believe this? Because, out of concern, I had purposely watched interviews with the author, speaking about precisely this. It is my sincere belief that the author is actually attempting to counter sexist customs, and rather is commenting on how abominable such practices are, and how bleak the world he has created is.
Further evidence would be the character of Fetching, who is indomitable, no man’s plaything, and who I understand has the second book in the series as “her book”, as the protagonist. I am certainly willing to give the series a chance, and check out the next book, to verify my beliefs, and see if the depiction of female characters improves in book 2. French’s excellent prose, wonderful action scenes, and masterful worldbuilding were certainly enough to make me feel it would be worth it to read all three books in “The Lot Lands”.
This book was absolutely relentless in its pacing, yet this gritty, dark, tightly-wound tale managed to weave fascinating political intrigue, exceptional worldbuilding, and thought-provoking themes into the narrative.
If you like “Sons of Anarchy” and “Mad Max”, infused with “Lord of the Rings”, and “A Song of Ice and Fire”, in a less capacious book than your typical epic fantasy, “The Grey Bastards” is for you. I am definitely in for the series, and for the long haul with Jonathan French’s writing.