The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French
Publisher: Orbit Publication date: 19th June 2018
Genre: Fantasy Page Count: 421
Jackal is proud to be a Grey Bastard, 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 civilisation from 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…
This is a book that has been on my radar for a while now, and I’ve been very excited to read it. The Grey Bastards was originally self published in 2015, and in 2016 won Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. Following on from this, Jonathan French landed a Big 5 publishing deal.
Having read it, I’m now feeling quite conflicted.
I loved it… but there were issues… I was hooked on it… but I had some problems… oh god the characters… but oh god the characters…
Ok let’s try and sort this mess out.
I loved the story and the world it was set in. It was refreshing to have a non-human protagonist, and their gritty life was stark and interesting. I particularly enjoyed how the story led me down different avenues and gradually became more complicated; I felt right there with Jackal as the plot thickened and we sorted through the tangle of secrets and lies together. French created a fascinating history to his world, easily feeling like, if you took away the fantasy elements, this story of colonisation and manipulation could have been lifted from our own world’s bleak history.
I became very attached to the characters, so much so that now I’ve finished the book I’m missing them. Jackal in particular felt so real; his mistakes borne out of rashness and an impetuous nature. He felt like a hot headed youth, overly confident in himself, on the brink of falling hard. And when he did fall, as hard as I was expecting, his growth and learning changed him into a character I was able to start to really care about.
Unfortunately, this book wasn’t perfect. There were a number of instances that left me cringing. French has created this masculine, hard world. There are deeply sexist and homophobic undercurrents to his society [can I just highlight at this point, a woman does not become, um, “more forgiving to famed proportions” the larger she gets. That’s not how anatomy works]. I don’t generally mind this sort of trope in a fantasy, the whole “holding a mirror up to the shortcomings of our society and showing how wrong they are”… Provided you actually voice how wrong they are. And on the whole, I felt this was missing; I didn’t get the sense that the characters were unhappy about these aspects of their society and wanted to make a change. There is a step towards vindication by the end, but I didn’t feel it was enough to outweigh everything preceding it.
I’m torn between whether I would award this three or four stars. So I’m down to asking myself, would I read this again? And considering it… yes I would. I would definitely want to read the next in the series, True Bastards, as I’m dying to find out what happens next. As I intimated above, I have a book hangover; I keep going to read it and remembering I’ve finished it. Roll on March? ish? next year!
This was my entry for one of Superstardrifter’s giveaways a while ago.