Summary: LIVE IN THE SADDLE. DIE ON THE HOG. Such is the creed of the half-orcs dwelling in the Lot Lands. Sworn to hardened brotherhoods known as hoofs, these former slaves patrol their unforgiving country astride massive swine bred for war. They are all that stand between the decadent heart of noble Hispartha and marauding bands of full-blood orcs. Jackal rides with the Grey Bastards, one of eight hoofs that have survived the harsh embrace of the Lots. Young, cunning and ambitious, he schemes to unseat the increasingly tyrannical founder of the Bastards, a plague-ridden warlord called the Claymaster. Supporting Jackal’s dangerous bid for leadership are Oats, a hulking mongrel with more orc than human blood, and Fetching, the only female rider in all the hoofs. When the troubling appearance of a foreign sorcerer comes upon the heels of a faceless betrayal, Jackal’s plans are thrown into turmoil. He finds himself saddled with a captive elf girl whose very presence begins to unravel his alliances. With the anarchic blood rite of the Betrayer Moon close at hand, Jackal must decide where his loyalties truly lie, and carve out his place in a world that rewards only the vicious.
Review: Every once in a while, you come across something that makes you sit up and take notice. You read a book and make a mental note that the book’s author is one to keep an eye on. Jonathan French is one such author, after having read The Grey Bastards.
Take a band of half-orcs, people typically born of interspecies rape, and give them a hard land that nobody else really seems to want. Tell them that they’re the only things stopping a second war between orcs and humans. Have then breed and ride very large boars as their mounts. Then throw in an idealistic young half-orc named Jackal who sees that his leader is making strange and unwise decisions, especially after a mysterious wizard arrives, and you get a story of action and intrigue that had me turning pages long past the time I should realistically have gone to sleep some nights.
It’s not a comfortable world that French sets up in The Grey Bastards. It’s full of violence, racial conflict, and if men treating women with anything but respect is something that rankles you, then you’re going to find a lot to dislike here. Women are often treated like walking genitalia, good for nothing but keeping a man’s sexual urges satisfied. Most of the female characters here are whores, with two exceptions: Fetching, a female half-orc who earned her place in an all-male band of fighters by not taking crap from anyone and giving as good as she got; and an elf named Starling, who says nothing in an intelligible language and doesn’t actually do much related to the plot. It’s probably not a book that will rate highly on the lists of those looking for books that feature equality between the sexes.
And I’m often pretty sensitive to that when it crops up in books. But for all that, I found myself really enjoying The Grey Bastards, even when some of the story (or rather, what some of the characters did and said) made me uncomfortable.
The story we get to see is from Jackal’s perspective, a half-orc who has ambitions of leadership but who doesn’t dare challenge the current leader, known as the Claymaster. That is, until the Claymaster starts making some very questionable decisions, and Jackal wonders if the old man is past his prime as is actually more of a danger to his people than a good leader. A newly-arrived wizard seems charming enough at first, but then begins having far too much influence over the Claymaster. Plans fall apart, they go nowhere, and Jackal decides it’s high time he challenged the Claymaster for leadership after all.
And here’s the fun thing about The Grey Bastards. Every time I thought an event would have a particular conclusion, it didn’t. I expected that challenge to go a certain way, and it didn’t. I expected a big reveal about a certain character, and it was about someone else. And those things made perfect sense in context; they didn’t seem designed to make a reader think one thing would happen while the author secretly mocks them for being unimaginative. French’s storytelling made everything flow well, with surprised working as well for the characters as they worked for the reader. It all kept me on my toes, and was a big reason I kept reading. I wanted to see what I’d be surprised by next, what expectations would be broken, and where the story would ultimately lead. The brutal world that French created had a certain charm to it, partly because while the Lot Lands of Jackal’s home are admittedly a wasteland between a rock and a hard place, Jackal loves them and is loyal to their defense and it’s hard to not let some of that rub off on you. You may not like the world or what kind of people it has helped to shape, but you can’t ignore that Jackal’s sentiments about it all have an effect as the story progresses.
The Grey Bastards put me in mind of something that Jeff Salyards might have written. The banter between characters is similar, full of crude camaraderie and foul-mouthed exclamations. The balance of idealism and experience is there, alongside the whole “things are far more complicated than they seem and you don’t know everything about everything” that I’ve seen in Salyards’s writing too. And my reaction to the works were so similar, making me think that while both Salyards and French are writing about things that you’d think wouldn’t appeal to me, given my other taste in novels, in the end I was surprised and impressed by just how much I’d enjoyed the stories contained within the pages.
So on that note, I can say that if you’ve read Salyards (or other authors like him) and enjoyed those books, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy French’s The Grey Bastards too. It’s a wild ride on the hog, filled with brutality, battle, and bravery. It’s coarse and crass and also loveable, and after this, I have high hopes for what French might do in the future. This was an excellent introduction to his work, and I’m pleased to have gotten it as part of my SPFBO book package. It’s a fine example of why you shouldn’t underestimate self-published authors or write them off as “not good enough;” The Grey Bastards is the kind of novel you dream of finding when you’re looking for underappreciated and worthy works.