Who knew half-orcs could be sexy?
I was looking for a book that was an easy read, something to cheer me up as I sat through the latter end of my period of COVID and this book was suggested numerous times to me.
Live in the saddle
Die on the hog
What do you get when you breed Sons of Anarchy, Tolkien, westerns and a dash of Spanish conquistadors? You get Jonathan French’s The Grey Bastards, book one of The Lot Lands, an action packed, rollicking, filthy, fun ride of a story. Set in a brutal and sometimes unforgiving world, we follow our main character, Jackal, a half-orc who belongs to The Grey Bastards, a group of hog riding half-orcs who protect their lands, and the lands of humans, against full-bloodied orcs, savage centaurs and the haughty, vicious elves. Jackal, along with his close friend Oats, and the only female half-orc to join the hoof, Fetching, they uncover a plot that threatens to destroy their way of life and the lands that surround them.
The first thing I should point out is that the humour in this book is filthy, vulgar which I found frequently hilarious. So if this kind of dirty sex humour isn’t your cup of tea, then maybe this book isn’t for you. If it is, read on.
What struck me first was the world building and setting that our characters have to survive in. French has created an unforgiving, harsh and relentlessly grim landscape of geography and societies. The dusty tracks, murky swamps and rocky mountains of the Lots mirrors the cruelty and viciousness of the racial division between societies and life in the hoof as a Grey Bastard. This is grimdark, but grimdark done in a way that feels fresh and different to other grimdark novels I have read. Even though there are a couple of key characters who are human, I think the lack of human characters really lends itself to this story and to the feel and tone of the book.
What French also does at the beginning of this book, at least this is how I felt, is that he lulls you into a false sense of security. The book opens with a very funny, almost comedic tone, introducing our trio of main characters, Jackal, Oats and Fetching. Then as we learn more about the world, and as Jackal starts to uncover a festering secret within the hoof, French brings in some very dark and disturbing aspects and themes that I was not prepared for and that also maybe triggering for some. As a warning I will say that rape and the ravages of war on women are dealt with in this story and could be very upsetting for some.
For me, what really made this book, were the characters, with Jackal and Fetch standing out for me. Both their personality and charm as singular characters shone through brilliantly, as well as their incredibly complex relationship together, which is a key element to the story and the outcome of several important events that take place. Jackal’s relationship with the Grey Bastards leader, the disease riddled and cantankerous Claymaster, is also a highlight of the story, creating some electric and often vicious confrontations. The mirroring of these two with the Sons of Anarchy’s Jax and Clay is not lost on me, neither is the similarity of the names, a direct homage from French to this fantastic tv show which the book shares so much DNA with.
Fetching has a really interesting character arc in the story. Being a female half-orc, she is often ridiculed and side-lined by the others and has to fight for recognition and status twice as hard as everyone else. She is rebellious, snarky and a creature of fury when it comes to combat as well as having a complex and ambiguous sense of honour and loyalty. Some of her choices had me nearly throwing the book against the wall.
I found French’s prose to be simple and flowing, his descriptions of action and combat was effective and clear and he excelled at dialogue, by far the strongest element for me in terms of his writing. The conversations felt real and contemporary and as mentioned, is frequently sweary and filthy.
If you are looking for an exhilarating, action-packed, grimdark novel with a cast of unique and vibrant characters then The Grey Bastards is for you. The mystery aspect to the novel, the investigation into a conspiracy, is really well thought out and planned by French and organically weaved through the story. I loved this and already plan to get book two. I can’t wait to revisit these characters and see what the fate of the Lots will be.
I give this 4.5/5 hogs.
Co-host/Producer of Make It So podcast.
Host/Producer of Observing The Pattern podcast