I am a lifelong Dungeons & Dragons fan/player/aficionado and of all the races available for game play back in the day, my least favorite was the half-orc. But things change, folks. They really do. As I dug into The Grey Bastards, I was struck by the fact that my perception of the half-orc was just a single viewpoint that I had never explored fully. Well, thankfully, author Jonathan French did. And he did it with style in this first book of the planned Lot Lands series.
The setting is simple – a post-war terrain that was ravaged by death and disease. Sentient beings the world over had divided the lands into sections and the known races intermingled minimally. Stuck between civilized areas were the half-orcs. They were divided into groups called Hoofs and they patrolled their lands in order to protect the humans, or Frails as they call them, from the orcs, known as Thicks. Similar groups of elves called Tines kept the mountains and forests safe while halflings that were more akin to dwarves worked powerful magics below ground in isolated areas. For in this world, the greatest fear was another Incursion, another war. The last one devastated every city, every people, everything.
So when an incident gets out of hand and a simple ruse fails, it seems the cards are stacked against our half-orcs. Specifically Jackal and The Grey Bastards. As Jackal investigates what should have been an easy fix, he discovers a string loose in an already overburdened web of lies. Quick and hardheaded, he follows what he sees as proof of betrayal within his own ranks. However, while he did find several inconsistencies that led him down his path, he was not aware of every part. This lack of knowledge would cost him dearly. Left with few options, he doggedly followed his path to the end. Whether it was success or failure can only be determined by the reader.
The most interesting part of this book was that it could easily have not been a fantasy novel. Change the races and creatures to humans of other nationalities or affiliations and remove the slight stain of magic that appears infrequently to create an equally appealing post-apocalyptic story. Of course, the half-orcs ride huge hogs called barbarians, the clerics heal through their halfling gods, and horny centaurs attacking because of moon phases might still be out of place. But you get my point. The writing emphasized the story, the plot, rather than magic and fantasy. The overall feel of the book was one of adventure and mystery, held together by humor, suspense, and friendship. In short, this was amazing and you all need to read it. It is, to steal a word from the book itself, crafty. Go buy it.
My note for Mr. French: Where the hell is the second novel? I am waiting most impatiently now.
Call them outcasts, call them savages””they’ve been called worse, by their own mothers””but Jackal is proud to be a Grey Bastard.
He and his fellow half-orcs patrol the barren wastes of the Lot Lands, spilling their own damned blood to keep civilized folk safe. A rabble of hard-talking, hog-riding, whore-mongering brawlers they may be, but the Bastards are Jackal’s sworn brothers, fighting at his side in a land where there’s no room for softness.
And once Jackal’s in charge””as soon as he can unseat the Bastards’ tyrannical, seemingly unkillable founder””there’s a few things they’ll do different. Better.
Or at least, that’s the plan. Until the fallout from a deadly showdown makes Jackal start investigating the Lot Lands for himself. Soon, he’s wondering if his feelings have blinded him to ugly truths about this world, and the Bastards’ place in it.
In a quest for answers that takes him from decaying dungeons to the frontlines of an ancient feud, Jackal finds himself battling invading orcs, rampaging centaurs, and grubby human conspiracies alike””along with a host of dark magics so terrifying they’d give even the heartiest Bastard pause.
Finally, Jackal must ride to confront a threat that’s lain in wait for generations, even as he wonders whether the Bastards can””or should–survive.
Delivered with a generous wink to Sons of Anarchy, featuring sneaky-smart worldbuilding and gobs of fearsomely foul-mouthed charm, The Grey Bastards is a grimy, pulpy, masterpiece””and a raunchy, swaggering, cunningly clever adventure that’s like nothing you’ve read before.