So let’s get this out of the way early with regard to Jonathan French’s The Grey Bastards, winner of the 2017 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) contest. (Kevin, who originally reviewed this novel for Fantasy Literature, rated it 7 stars out of 10; Tadiana DNF’d it because of the pervasive offensive content.) It’s foul-mouthed, has a good amount of graphic language (warning: I’m about to give a few examples. Seriously — bad words ahead), sex, and violence, and much of that is aimed in ugly fashion at women. There’s a heaping amount of “fuck’s” in the story (both the word and the act), but also a lot of “quim” and “cunt.” The women, save two, are whores, “bedwarmers,” or mothers who if young breastfeed babies and if old take care of orphans. The two exceptions are a main character who is good at everything and smart and another character who says nearly nothing (and if she does it’s translated) and who was raped, perhaps even gang-raped. On top of that, there’s a whole bunch of “I’m gonna hug you, you other guy you, but don’t think it’s a gay thing!” and “I’m gonna hug ya back, you big lug, but if it goes on too long it’s definitely gay” jokes/dialog.
Now, none of that is going to sound “appealing” to anyone (at least, god, hope not). But if it sounds like it’s a deal-breaker, this is clearly not the book for you. It was a close call as to whether it was a book for me and honestly, I’m not sure I would have finished it had it not been a review copy. Now, I don’t want to imply the author is espousing these views, and there’s an argument to be made that the author is highlighting the negative aspects of a culture. Plus, there are hints that things are changing. But I do think the execution muddies how these views are meant to be seen, and that is problematic. There’s a lot to like in French’s novel if you can look past all that, but I had great difficulty in responding positively at many points; it often took me out of the reading experience, and made me frequently wonder if it was all truly necessary (in my own view, not really; but then that’s me complaining about the author not writing the book I’d write, so there’s that). With that pretty big caveat (really, it’s a big caveat, trust me), onward to a review of The Grey Bastards’ other aspects, which are mostly positive.
The setting is a world that a lengthy generation ago saw a major war between invading orcs and the allied humans “Frails,” half-orcs, and elves. The war was stopped by a virulent plague that swept through both sides, leaving them too exhausted to continue the fight and forcing the orcs back to their homeland. The allies then divided up the land, with elves, humans, and half-orcs in their own homogenous regions, though there is travel and trade (elves mostly stick to themselves, though). The half-orcs got the horrible borderland — “The Lots”—between the human kingdom and the narrow body of water that the orcs cross to attack.
The half-orcs have just under a dozen social settlements that are warrior-centered, male-dominated, and strongly hierarchical. There’s a clear biker-gang vibe going on here, if not an out and out parallel, even to the half-orcs riding on war “hogs.” The Grey Bastards are one such “Hoof,” and our protagonist is Jackal, a relatively younger generation member who thinks the current Chief has outlived his abilities as leader. Jackal’s two compatriots are Oats (a “thrice-born—product of an orc/half-orc mating) and Fetching, the first female to ever become a Hoof member. The three become embroiled in complicated plots that involve Jackal trying to become the new chief, a possible new orc “incursion,” a prophecy of a returned god worshipped by halflings, centaurs who go orgiastically violent on the night of a certain moon, a half-orc wizard (a first) who shows up out of nowhere, a slave-trade in female elves, and possible fissures in the alliance amongst the three allied races. There’s more, but that should suffice.
First and foremost, the characters are a lot of fun. Jackal, as the main character, is mostly likable and has an engaging personality and voice. Even better, and one of my favorite aspects of The Grey Bastards, is how he’s presented as someone who thinks he has all the right answers and motives. And in most novels, that’s where the characterization would end. But time and again Jackal is thrown for a loop (as is the reader), and his confident plotting thrown awry by learning that the world is more complex than his relatively short life experience has prepared him for. It’s an atypical portrayal of the stock “hero” character and shies away from as well the nearly-as-stock “anti-hero” type.
Oats is a more typical stalwart sidekick/best-friend but has his moments where the author digs a bit more deeply into his character. The wizard character is amusingly inscrutable and adds a nice touch of constant tension, as one is never sure of his motives. Other side characters get a chance to show us more than one side of themselves. The one negative characterization is Fetching, who is unfortunately a bit too good: best archer, best fighter, smart, etc. I would have liked to have seen her less perfect, and as well seen a few more females in positions of strength and power (there are others who act strongly, but that’s different).
The worldbuilding is slowly revealed as The Grey Bastards goes on, and it’s still not fully laid out by the end; it’s more than a little thin, but clearly there’s a second book coming and one assumes we’ll learn more about it. The exposition can be clunky at times, and though the war/division of land at least explains why the regions are homogenous, I admit I’m a little tired of the one-race/one land set up and am ready for some fantasy that presents lands as more cosmopolitan. But that’s just a personal preference and also the result of decades of reading a lot of fantasy.
Plot-wise the action is vibrant, fast, bloody, and deftly handled in terms of logistics. The entire book is also nicely paced and shows good balance and smooth transitions as it moves between fight scenes, chase scenes, political arguments, and more intimate one-on-one conversations. A few cliché moments pop up, as do some a few unexpected twists to balance them out. Dialogue is quite well done for the most part, save the aforementioned language, misogynistic, homophobic “bro talk” moments.
If the more disturbing elements weren’t present or were greatly trimmed down in frequency, I’d have no trouble recommending The Grey Bastards as a fun read with engaging characters, a solid 3.5. But there’s also no avoiding the fact that those elements did cause me a heap of trouble at times and had me wincing quite a bit. So I’m dropping it to a 2.5, and I’ll let you decide how much personal weight to give those elements.