Author: Jonathan French
Title: A The Grey Bastards
The Grey Bastards, French’s first installment in the Lot Lands series and the winner of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off 2016, has been steadily making its rounds around the blogosphere for a while, and became especially popular after the publication of the second installment, The True Bastards, earlier this year. The covers of both installments are really neat (I’d say “pretty” but somehow that word doesn’t seem to really fit fanged half-orcs) and give the reader a fair taste of the content. Which is, contrary to the expectations of some, less a story about nasty old pensioners, and more a curious mix of biker gang lore, bastardized Tolkien setting (well, I couldn’t resist) in a RPG-derived form, and some solid wordlbuilding.
The Lot Lands, previously called Ul-wundulas, are a domain ravaged and scarred by a war. The terrible orc Incursion into the greener and more fertile lands of the Hispartha kingdom a generation back had several unintended consequences: a swath of land between the kingdoms of humans and the domains of the orcs had been razed and destroyed, leaving it all but empty – a no-man’s land, vulnerable to another incursion and liable to start another war. In the wake of Incursion, the half-human, half-orc slaves of Hispartha had been freed and allotted a part of the empty lands, under the condition of protecting the border. Divided into several “hoofs”, a cross between a tribe, a warrior-group and a gang, they share the Lot Lands with insular and dangerous elves, unlucky and demoralized soldiers banished from Hispartha to the ungrateful task of manning the castilles along the border, religiously-minded Halflings defended by the world’s Tartars(!), called Unyars, blood-crazy centaurs, and Sludge Man – a dangerous demon inhabiting a fetid marsh and controlling moving masses of black, sticky goo.
Grey Bastards are one such hoof, consisting of several seasoned riders tasked with a double duty of patrolling the lands in the vicinity on the backs of great war hogs and with protecting a village of women and orphans which had symbiotically grown under their fortress. In this world, another conflict seems inevitable – and the protagonists of The Grey Bastards are in the middle of it all. Intrigued yet?
Let me set things straight, in the manner befitting the Grey Bastards. It was a rocky ride. I was close to DNFing this a couple of times, but in the end I persevered and I’m glad I did. This book undeniably has a heart, and is chock-full of good intentions, and while the former always works for the book (at least for me), the latter sometimes doesn’t. The story is fairly simple, a regular hero journey with a few twists, the first of which is glaringly obvious from the very beginning: our future hero is a jackass (incidentally, I suspect the author of indulging that particular guilty pleasure of watching the show). That should have been his name, instead of Jackal. Of course, at some point he becomes the selfless, responsible hero we’ve all been waiting for, and while you may detect a hint of sarcasm in my words (rightly, I might add, for there the good intentions get better of the author and the whole thing becomes too earnest and cloyingly sweet at once), the change was welcome.
So, the main character starts off as a dumbass with lofty ambitions and many mistakes to make. Not a great start 😉 Secondly, there’s the language. I have no experience whatsoever with motorbike gangs, and my knowledge of them comes mostly from the pop-culture. However, if their vocabulary is to be judged by the Grey Bastards and is in fact similarly limited to swear words and a variety of crude terms for male/female reproductive organs, I’m surprised any still exist. In short, the language felt contrived and extremely juvenile, the focus on sex, physical attractiveness and the size of one’s equipment was painfully unwavering (and we’re talking about almost thirty-year-olds here, not some horny teenagers), and while some of the banter was entertaining, the whole thing was really cumbersome, weighing heavily against my continued reading. Fortunately, the novel significantly picked up the pace with the arrival of a half-orc wizard Crafty, and the plot took a turn for the better – which nicely coincided with a marked decrease in the tiresome banter. The plot’s twists were nice, and the whole backstory of the Lots took on a new shine after some of the revelations, but the motivations of the main character remained a bit forced throughout the book. It may be only me, but Jackal’s actions seemed to a significant extent not so much rooted in the logic of his personality or the outer world, but rather in the demands of the plot.
All in all, it was a fairly enjoyable journey, and I grew to like some of the characters. Jackal is still on the “pending” list, and so is Fetching, who for the change of gender would have been the worst case of special snowflakiness in the whole bunch (I readily believe being the only female in the hoof can make one prickly in addition to special, but French got out of his way to prove Fetching’s worthiness and beauty in any way conceivable, and several of them were rather less believable than others) but their friend Oats is a cuddly care bear for someone with three-quarters orc blood in him 😉
While I did have some problems with character development, plot development and some scene structuring, I can unreservedly praise French for his worldbuilding skills. The Lots came alive in his words, and it’s such a terribly beautiful landscape that I truly enjoyed visiting it. The detailed descriptions, the environmental pressure palpable in the many small ways the inhabitants of the Lots must have adjusted to their surroundings, the various and varied places we visited with Jackal – all this created an ambitious and believable vision of the fantastical world.
I’m still not sure whether I’ll be reading the second installment. The Grey Bastards provided an undeniably entertaining yet tasking ride, and one I can readily recommend to fans of alt-Medieval post-apo RPG settings and biker gangs ;). As for the rest of the readers, you’ll have to judge for yourselves.
…I do wish to read a thriller about nasty old pensioners, though 😉