The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French

Rating 9.0/10
Recommended for fans of gritty, filthy, and visceral battle scenes mixed with a richly developed cast of non-human protagonists.

Jonathan French's The Grey Bastards is an emotional, exciting, and unique story told from the viewpoint of half-orcs, living in the badlands with their fellow 'hoof' members, defending their desecrated colony by riding their war pigs into crossbow-and-javelin battles. The "biker gang" analogy is smartly developed, as half-orcs ride literal hogs while roving into enemy territories. This novel was the winner of the 2017 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off contest and for good reason. The environmental descriptions and deeply flawed, yet empathetic characters breathe life into this richly detailed story that pulled me in from the get-go and didn't let go until the final page. 

The story unfolds through the lens of very few members of the Grey Bastards' gang, a.k.a. "hoof." The cast remains small for a substantial portion of the novel, carefully curating the characters' relationships and motivations in a such a way that their behavior and reactions feel like real people that you know, and root for, and argue with, and laugh about. In time, the scope and magnitude of new events escalate the plot into uncharted territories. Monstrous terrors, unforeseen betrayals, and legendary magics are fired off with such velocity that our party of Bastards are left scrambling to discover what's really going on beneath the surface of their fragile society. Suddenly surrounded by enemies on all sides, the Bastards are forced into painful decisions that will redefine their loyalties and affect the future of their homeland and their dwindling chances for survival. 

At the narrative's conclusion, I felt as if I had read an entire series of books packed into one standalone. I was impressed by the rich volume of plot threads that were woven together in exciting and unpredictable ways. The action was well-defined, and the stakes were as compelling as I had grown quite attached to Jackal, Fetch, and the rest of the Bastards. The finale did an especially fine job of combining action, pathos, and a surprising amount of reveals that solidify French's deft ability to sneak up on the reader with scenes of great emotional impact.

At times, the novel reminded me of Guy Gavriel Kay's "Tigana" in its sense of scope, moral ambiguity, and characters to whom you didn't want to say goodbye. The Grey Bastards is an exciting, fun, and thrilling read, and I was surprised at how polished it felt for being a debut novel. I have no qualms about recommending this book to fans of gritty, filthy, & visceral battle scenes mixed with a richly developed cast of non-human protagonists. Live in the saddle, Die on the hog. BRING ON THE SEQUEL.

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