Jonathan French – The Grey Bastards

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 a frail and noble human civilisation form invading bands of vicious full blooded orcs. But on the heels of the ultimate betrayal, Jackal will start to question where his true loyalties lie…

As soon as Jonathan French’s The Grey Bastards came through the mailbox, courtesy of Orbit, I had this tagged as a must read. Sword and Sorcery is really my thing and this one peaked my interest. It was refreshing to see a high fantasy novel done from the perspective of a half-orc, although, with their crass behaviour and sex jokes you could more readily dub it Low-Fantasy. Actually it really is sword and sorcery. 

Bad puns aside, I read this book in two days, it was so gripping. The story is told through the viewpoint of Jackal, a member of the Grey Bastards. He is a very active character in his story and has a great drive to achieve his goals. By his own moral compass he has to make choices to get there, but he does not dwell on the what-ifs. I can envy his ability to look forward and that makes him an interesting read. It makes for a fast paced action adventure with good twists and good jokes. The interplay between Jackal and his two fellow bastards is the source of most of the fun. One is Oats, a thrice (a ¾ orc) and the other Fetching, the first ever female Bastard. They are very well-rounded characters that could stand on their own. In fact, most of the cast of characters feel more than two dimensional, a feat of very good writing.

What I like about this book is that it tells a good story first and foremost and if that is all you look for, this is a very good choice. But if you want, you can see that there is more on offer. One aspect that I’ll highlight here is the use of racial differences to make a comment about society. In this book the separation of the races and their inate racial traits are a way to make these comments. The half-orcs are portrayed as brutish barbarians, they make crass jokes and live in the wilderness. But during the story you find out more: that they have set up an orphan system (male half orcs are sterile), that they have a tight brotherhood of warriors to keep them safe and that they have and elaborate social system and much more. Jonathan French writes the juxtaposition of the way society sees the half orcs and how they see themselves very well and I liked the detail he put in their society.

The opening scene underlines this perfectly. Some soldiers arrive at a brothel the Bastards are collecting taxes from, and a rookie noble patrolman picks a fight with them. He spouts all the prejudices of the civilized human society at the half-orcs. Jackal and Oats do everything to keep the situation from escalating, but drawing the line at infringement of the Bastard’s “sovereign” authority. When the dust settles Jackal and his two companions talk about the ramifications for them and the Bastards, like a diplomat or statesman would, with lewd jokes; violence and statesmanship, the complex half-orc in this novel.

Ultimately it is the total package that matters. The Grey Bastards is a very good story, with good characters and I liked the humour in it. Witty banter that feels natural between old friends is hard to do, but if you get it right the book is the better for it. The action and combat scenes were gripping and kept me reading, almost skipping lines, to see how it ends. And then there is that extra layer you would not expect in such a story. A very enjoyable read and a very good book all around.

Wiebe van der Salm

This book was provided for review by the publisher.