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.

9/10 - Adam Weller

I received an advanced reader copy of The Grey Bastards in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Orbit Books and Jonathan French. 

In French's debut release, readers follow Jackal, an attractive half-orc who is a key member of his gang which is known here as a hoof. The hoof is called The Grey Bastards and they operate in similar fashion to how a biker gang might, offering protection to local businesses, riding around their turf, and getting into skirmishes with rival factions but instead of motorcycles, they travel on giant and vicious war hogs. The war hogs are more than just vehicles, they are closer to pets and are incredibly loyal and a huge asset in any conflicts with fully fledged Orcs. One of the hogs is lovingly called Ugfuck!

Alongside Jackal, the standout additions are - Oats, a giant thrice-blood who is Jackal's banter-buddy and loyal best friend, and Fetch, who is fierce, amazing with a bow and arrow and also the only female member of the hoof. The camaraderie and banter of the Bastards' is top quality throughout and reminiscent of the crews in Malazan or The First Law. Orcs are often presented in fantasy as brainless brutes but with half human emotions thrown into the equation as presented here they often extremely likable and relatable. The majority of the characters are fully fleshed out and each have detailed motives and opinions. Another notable mention goes to the Half-Orc Wizard Crafty. 

The worldbuilding is excellent throughout with the environments and its inhabitants brimming with details and intricacies. Although The Grey Bastards includes a fair amount of fantasy tropes including wizards, elves, orcs, halflings - it is crafted in such a way that combined everything feels new, fresh, exciting and original. There are many different nations, races, and factions each with their own religions, hierarchies, and histories which are all well-crafted, however, I still believe we've only just touched the surface of what The Lot Lands trilogy has to offer. A moment that stood out as a highlight to me was when information regarding the half-orcs' pasts and how they came to be placed where they are in this worlds current hierarchy was revealed. 

This novel is filthy, dirty, and gritty but in the best possible way. It is dark fantasy done right. The Grey Bastards is extremely adult in nature featuring certain moments of vulgarity and also the swearing count is high from the very first page. There are a plethora of standout scenes dotted throughout this sharp brilliant debut. Ambushes, swamp-battles, and an assault made by beasts straight out of mythology are but a handful of occasions that spring to mind. There are many exquisite and dramatic confrontations but a scene that stood out the most to me was a conflict battled with wits and words rather than javelins and swords. The character dialogue throughout is unbelievably tight, not just for a debut novel but for any top fantasy novel. In The Grey Bastards, just when I thought I knew what was going to happen next I was blindsided and then the chaos, twists, drama, and unpredictability gave me an Orc-powered punch to the gut! French has composed a stunning opening chapter to his trilogy that is well worthy of the hype that has been garnering. If you have been living under a rock and haven't heard about this book yet then I'd definitely recommend putting it on your radar.

9/10 - James Tivendale

 

This The Grey Bastards book review was written by and James Tivendale

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