“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 civilization 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 peace 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 Grey Bastards is yet another quality formerly self-published novel, and after French’s storming performance in SPFBO 2016 it’s no surprise to see his work snapped up by Crown Publishing in the US, and Orbit in the UK. This is a testosterone-fuelled adventure in which a gang (known as a hoof) of Half-Orcs ride Hogs into battle to protect their turf – it’s filled with vulgar and often amusing banter, intrigue and a surprisingly complex backstory that’s full of surprises.
Our main character is Jackal, a Half-Orc with aspirations to become the leader of his hoof. Close to him are Oats, a thrice-blood (3/4 Orc, which makes him unusually large and strong) and Fetch (the only female member of the hoof) who he grew up with in the local orphanage and counts as his closest friends. There are nine hoofs in total, all loosely allied and serving to patrol and protect their lands from their enemies, of which there are many. The most prominent threat is the full-blooded Orcs, known as Thicks, who frequently raid their lands and are larger, faster and stronger than any Half-Orc. The scales are levelled to some degree by the presence of the barbarians, highly trained war boars that the hoof ride into battle – with their bulk, speed and vicious tusks, the Half-Orcs stand a fighting chance against roughly even numbers. The most dangerous threat they face is the Centaurs (or horse-cocks, as they call them – told you it was vulgar!), who are especially terrifying during a cycle of the moon known as the betrayer, which sends them into a frenzy. I could go into far more detail about the Lot-Lands and the enemies and allies of the hoof, but these background details are such a strength of the novel that I feel like it would be doing you a disservice to tell you too much about them. The hoof’s place in all of this is a big part of a very rich and satisfyingly believable world.
The novel is remarkably well plotted, and Jackal’s motivations lead him to make perfectly logical decisions with the information available to him. However, a huge part of the fun is that Jackal doesn’t have all the information for most of the novel, and his need to investigate drives much of the action – this kicks off as the Claymaster (the current leader of the Bastards) makes an increasingly questionable series of decisions to the apparent detriment of the hoof. When a mysterious and powerful Half-Orc wizard with unknown motivations arrives on the scene and is immediately courted by the Claymaster, Jackal feels forced to make his move and issue a challenge for leadership. From there, things get very interesting indeed.
The setting is gritty and unforgiving – even the existence of the Half-Orcs is based on Orcs raping and pillaging, and the rest of their history is equally unpleasant. However, while I’ve heard The Grey Bastards described as Grimdark, I’d have to disagree. The characters are driven by hope and good intentions, and the hoof are largely good hearted people looking to protect their friends and loved ones from a larger threat. There’s very little in the way of anti-heroes, narcissists or nihilism. Their history is layered and full of secrets, and each new piece of information is well thought out and yet delightfully unpredictable. The pacing was excellent – great scene setting in the beginning with a strong build up, and then ramps up nicely in the second half with near-constant reveals that turn everything on its head. The friendships are believable, the banter sharp and funny, the frat-boy behavior of the hoof is amusing and eye-roll inducing in roughly equal measure, and the drama is compelling. There’s a real wild west feel to the whole thing, the climax in particular was hugely satisfying, and the ending just the right kind of bittersweet.
Sounds awesome, right? Well, it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to suit everyone. For a start, if you don’t want to know about the length and girth of a bunch of Half-Orc penises in some detail, you might want to hold off. 😂 Women are routinely referred to as “quim”, “cunny”, “bed warmers” and “whores” by our heroes and while it makes perfect sense within the context of the world, it’s not necessarily something everyone will enjoy reading. I’d have liked to see some of the female characters given a little more agency and push back against this more, but events towards the end of the novel do seem to indicate that some change may be coming in this respect. There’s also a slew of “no homo” jokes (referred to as “backy” here) that are part of the banter, which some may find off-putting. I in no way think this reflects the opinions of the author – in fact, I’ve seen him voicing his concerns on social media about people getting the wrong idea and he seems like a pretty great dude, but I can also see why he’s concerned.
Overall I’d say if the above doesn’t bother you, this is a rollicking adventure with some genuinely shocking surprises and a lot of laughs and excitement. I enjoyed the hell out of it and will look forward to book 2.
Thanks to Crown Publishing and Netgalley for the ARC of The Grey Bastards.
The Grey Bastards is released on June 19 and is available for pre-order.
Bingo Squares 2018
- Reviewed on r/Fantasy
- Fewer than 2500 GR Ratings