The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French

The Blurb On The Back:

Live in the saddle.

Die on the hog.

Jackal is proud to be a Grey Bastard, member of a sworn brotherhood of half-orcs.  Unloved and unwanted in civilized society, the Bastards eke out a hard life in the desolate no-man’s-land called the Lots, protecting frail and noble human civilisation from invading bands of vicious full-blooded orcs.

But as Jackal is soon to learn, his pride may be misplaced.  Because a dark secret lies at the heart of the Bastards’ existence – one that reveals a horrifying truth behind humanity’s tenuous please with the orcs and exposes a grave danger on the horizon.

On the heels of the ultimate betrayal, Jackal must scramble to stop a devastating invasion – even as he wonders where his true loyalties lie.  

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Jackal is one of 9 members of the Grey Bastards, a band of giant pig-riding half-orcs who defend the desolate Lot Lands (parcels of war-ravaged land granted to a number of half-orc bands by the kingdom of Hispartha following the successful defeat of a terrible orc invasion years earlier.  The Grey Bastards are led by the Claymaster, a plague-riddled half-orc veteran of that orc invasion and include Jackal’s childhood best friends Oats (a thrice half-orc who has more orc blood in him, making him larger and stronger than ‘normal’ half-orcs) and Fetch (a female half-orc who is conscious of how her gender gives her a lower status than the other Bastards).  Jackal, though, is convinced that the Claymaster is past his prime and plans to launch his own bid to lead the Bastards once he’s certain of a majority of votes.

When Fetch kills an arrogant cavaleros (an officer and minor nobleman assigned to a Hispathan garrison in the Lot Lands), it sparks a chain of events that brings Jackal into contact with a half-orc wizard called Uhad Ul-badir Taruk Ultani (known to the Bastards as Crafty) and sets him on a course that sees him betrayed by the people he thought he could always rely on and challenges everything he thought he knew about the Bastards and the Lot Lands …

Jonathan French’s epic fantasy novel (the first in a series) has solid worldbuilding (albeit based on the cliched medieval trope) and I enjoyed the half-orcs and their society and way of thinking (especially the war pigs) but the plot strains at times, Fetch is the only female character who isn’t a whore or a mother and I’m a little over the whole ‘evil from the east’ thing, although this wouldn’t stop me reading the sequel.

I really enjoyed the way the book focuses on half-orcs and French has constructed a great and thorough background for them, from biology to background to the way their gangs are formed and their place and function in Harpathia.  Loud and foul-mouthed, they are brutish but care for each other in their own way and Jackal is a strong protagonist – young and arrogant, he makes mistakes but learns from them (although his tendency to react in the first quarter of the book did become wearying).  His relationship with Oats and Fetch gives the book its impetus emotional core and French does well at making the reader care about what happens to them (even if the romance angle is too obvious and, for me, doesn’t add much).

There’s an energy and pace to the novel with French doing particularly well with the action scenes, which are clear and evocative. However the plot strains at times to the point where the discoveries in the first quarter had a contrived vibe to them (although to be fair, it does start coming together more naturally in the second half) and I am personally really tired of the way that female characters in stories of this type tend to be cheerful whores or wise mothers except for the token bad ass chick who is stronger and better than other women and, of course, a romance interest for the hero.  I also wasn’t taken with the hint towards the end of an eastern plot to overthrow the kingdom, just because I’ve seen it happen too many times before and find it reductive (which is a shame because the relevant characters had a lot of potential).

All in all, I appreciated the way that French is trying to do something new with orc characters and although I didn’t like the cliched elements, I would still be interested in checking out the sequel because there is a lot of potential in this series and I would like to see where French takes it.

THE GREY BASTARDS was released in the United Kingdom on 21stJune 2018.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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