The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French
The Grey Bastards is a spectacular and unique piece of fantasy that is gritty, dark and pulls no punches but is also incredible fun. Originally self-published, it finally found the recognition it deserved being signed by Orbit after winning the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off, beating off hundreds of other entries. Speaking of beating off – lets get to the good stuff!
“Jackal is proud to be a Grey Bastard, a member of a sworn brotherhood of half-orcs. Unloved and unwanted in civilised 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 the invading bands of full-blooded orcs. But as Jackal is soon to learn, his pride may be misplaced. Because a festering secret lies at the heart of the Bastards’ existence – one that reveals the truth behind humanity’s tenuous peace with the orcs, and exposes the danger on the horizon. On the heels of the ultimate betrayal, Jackal must scramble to stop an invasion even as he wonders where his true loyalties lie.”
The half-orcs are a proud race, small in numbers and born from an orc and a, most likely unwilling, human. Jackal, Oats and Fetching are brothers and sisters in arms, childhood friends, trained by the same legend, sworn to the same hoof and trusted companions. Jackal is a worthy protagonist. He is ambitious, righteous, a skilled killer, a half-orc that gets shit done and can keep his end up. (That’s what she said.) His right-hand man is Oats, a huge three-quarter-orc, the fiercest fighter in the hoof and Jackal’s best friend. Finally we have Fetching, the only female in the hoof. She is deadly, clever, ostracised, underrated by some and underestimated by all and in a constant battle between head and heart. She is Gamora-level sexy….and now I’m crying. Stupid Thanos. Other riders make up the hoof with the ageing and ailing Claymaster in charge, a half-orc whose recent decisions have left Jackal, as well as others, wondering if he has lost his will to fight and right to lead. There’s also a wizard nicknamed Crafty whose motives are unclear, a demonic thing and a fantastic villain called The Sludge Man who primarily disposes bodies in his swamp, and a couple of others you’ll discover for yourself and come to love, Ugfuck in particular.
The writing is so good I’d have been happy to read about the daily adventures of the Grey Bastards a week before this book took place, which I assume – naked, cock-in-hand centaur raids aside, of course – was a fairly quiet and normal one. We are given a wonderful taste of this life, but events occur that very quickly open up the world and the problems facing the half-orcs and their land known as The Lots. The Lots are pretty much a wasteland and a garbage heap but they work as a border between the lands of the orc, elf and humans. They are also home. The hoofs defend them from orc incursions whilst trying to live and grow and succeed as sentient respectable beings in their own right. As the plot thickens, there are unexpected revelations about the origins of the Lots and how the half-orcs claimed them, the real power behind the original nine hoofs, and so much more.
French is one of a new and exciting stock of writers like Ed McDonald and Nicholas Eames who have invigorated the fantasy genre by doing the impossible: combining the crushing weight of grimdark with a vibrant humour that breathes life into the pages. The Grey Bastards is a huge success. Readers get a nice balance of light and dark and characters they will laugh and cry with. It is constantly surprising, bloody, hilarious and exciting and made me wish I could pick up the second book straight away.