A delightful revelry of imagination where the lowest of the low are the only thing which can save the land from utter ruin.
I had the pleasure of meeting Jonathan French in person quite recently. He was speaking on a panel at Dragon Con 2018 titled “Monsters are people too!”. It was delightful to let him know how much I enjoyed this book. Jonathan is a witty, funny, and gracious fellow. During the panel, everyone really enjoyed his thoughts on the subject of monsters. He and his fellow panelists gave us a load of chuckles as well as excellent insights on humanizing their creations.
The Grey Bastards is hands down one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in this past year. It seems the best books can be the hardest ones to find the right words to describe, let alone review the damn thing. Every once in a blue moon, you get one of these types of books that you love to pieces, but sputter over it as if starstruck, and so this review is long overdue. Just when I was finishing the book in its indie version, our author, the winner of the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off 2016, was offered a publishing contract with Crown, a division of Random House. As the book wasn’t available for purchase again until June 2018, I have waited to publish this review until people could actually buy the book once more.
It’s been very exciting to see the tremendous positive response to The Grey Bastards in the short months since it’s release in it’s new cover from Crown. We shall all miss the cover artwork done on his self-published edition by the incomparable Raymond Swanland, it is an awesome piece of work that many of us came to know and loved on first sight. Being associated tightly to winning the SPFBO 2017 competition, where it captured us completely. So here we shall pay homage, and bid a sad adieu to its badassery.
The Grey Bastards is a unique, rough, romp of a story, and it is strangely poignant in its own way in places. It isn’t the action that grabs you as much as the unique premise of its characters and their lifestyle. It hooks you completely in the first chapter and no amount of swear words, and there are many, will put you off as you are swept into the Lot Lands and the world of half-orcs. These half breeds keep the kingdom of mankind safe from invading the armies of full-blooded orcs determined to continue to attempt to overrun it. The Grey Bastards pulls no punches with its profanity and sexual innuendos that suit this story and the characters within it perfectly. If you take offense easily, this might not be your cuppa. The rest of us heathens will continue to revel in it and applaud it.
The Hoof is a band of half-breed human and orc, the bastard-born of human mothers who inhabit the Lot Lands, having been raped by full blooded orcs during incursions into the Lotlands and surrounding areas. The mothers who cannot abide to kill their own child, bring them to the Lot Lands and the small town of Winsome near the Kiln of the Grey Bastards, where they are raised in a half-breed orphanage. The Lot Lands are a blasted, desolate area of land given to the half orcs who were freed from slavery by their human masters, a reward for their part in the wars between men and orcs which was ended by a deadly plague generations ago. Each Hoof has its own fortress and leaders. The Hoofs are tightly banded groups, the riders having spent their years in service as slops, young hopefuls that are given the lowest duties in the Hoof. These bands of riders are all that stand between mankind and the orcs. They are gritty, foul-mouthed warriors who are fiercely defending the lands on which they live from invading orc armies. The story is told from the point of view of Jackal, a devilish, ambitious young rider with aims on the Claymaster’s seat as chief of the hoof. We learn about the world and its history through him, and his ambitions that may have more consequence than he imagined. The reader learns as he learns, and his world tells a gruesome and at moments, a touching tale.
With the exception of Fletch, there are no other females in the Grey Bastards. The misogyny, which is rampant within the Hoof, is a critical part of the world building in this story. Fletch is by far one of the strongest representations I’ve seen done of a female character in a role as not only a half-breed, but a warrior as well. She has fought for her position as a rider for nearly her entire life. The misogynistic culture here and sexism are deeply ingrained in the Hoof. Contrasting this, is the total acceptance and support of Fletch from Jackal and their foster brother Oats, with the utter loathing she suffers from the Claymaster, chief of the Grey Bastards. These realities are at such odds with one another and they’re done brilliantly here. Misogyny is a fact is of life as well as oppression and assault of women and the author handles this by recognizing it for what it is and his protagonist, Jackal, is the balancing factor that shows how to subvert it by doing all he can to help her succeed. When she allows it, that is. I loved Fletch from the moment she appeared in all her naked glory. She feels the same as I do about being awoken without good cause. Someone is going to DIE. Even though she and Jackal were fostered side by side, she remains an enigma to both the protagonist and the reader alike until the latter portion of the book.
The half orc’s existence, their Hoof names, such as The Skull Sowers, The Grey Bastards, The Fangs of our Fathers, The Shards, all feel like militarized biker gangs, and they ride giant tusked hogs known as barbarians. The bond each rider has with their mount is a fierce one and they are aptly named for the setting, with my favorite being Ugfuck. Even the rider’s own names are a part of what and who they are within the hoof, such as Polecat, Mead, Warbler, and Roundth. The unique defense system of the Kiln fortress and the ingenious invention of the Hogback of the fort are impressive creations by the author.
A hinged wooden ramp lolled down from the palisade into the compound’s yard. Three powerful barbarians were harnessed to a great vertical axle, which turned a chaos of gears that Jackal had never been able to comprehend. Once the hogs were urged to walk, the Hogback split, a second ramp rising up from the first, yawning into the sky until it overtopped the palisade and touched down on the ground beyond, all in a matter of minutes. More than enough time for the Grey Bastards to marshal in full arms
The land the bastards inhabit, the fortresses they’ve built, and the lifestyle they lead are all highly imagined. There are monsters here, like the Sludgeman, that will Make you shudder, as well as strange wizards with obvious power and unclear motives. The giant tusked hogs they ride into battle, the fragile peace with human men and elves, and very strange magic, all mix into a great book that is paced perfectly. The plot itself is more complex than it appears at first, and readers will be totally invested in the outcomes of each conflict. Every detail of this world has its own term and everything about this book immerses you completely in their world. Their motto says a great deal about them:
Live in saddle, die on the hog.
This is a highly recommended book for fantasy readers who like them wild, untamed, and unique. It is the sort of vividly imagined realism in a fantasy setting that the genre demands from authors today. Plenty of action,unforgettable characters and creatures alike, a terrific plot, and a healthy dose of strange and dangerous magic.
About the author:
Jonathan French is the author of the Autumn’s Fall Saga and The Grey Bastards. His debut novel, The Exiled Heir, was nominated for Best First Novel at the Georgia Author of the Year Awards in 2012. His second book, The Errantry of Bantam Flyn, rose to #6 on the Kindle Norse/Viking Fantasy bestseller list, proudly sharing the top ten with Neil Gaiman. His newest work, The Grey Bastards, is best described as “Sons of Anarchy…with half-orcs” and is poised to be his biggest seller to date. The book is the winner of The Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off #SPFBO 2016. An outspoken advocate on the merits and future of independent publishing, Jonathan has led panel discussions at conventions such as DragonCon, TimeGate, and CONjuration. Recently, Jonathan had the pleasure of being featured in an episode of the web-series Retroblasting as a consultant on the cultural impact of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise. You can find out more at www.jonathanfrenchbooks.com.