Jonathan French, The Grey Bastards (2015)

The Grey Bastards

Author: Jonathan French

Title: A The Grey Bastards

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 386

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 😉

Tenderheart care bear

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 😉

Score: 7/10

25 thoughts on “Jonathan French, The Grey Bastards (2015)

  1. You have no idea what a relief it is to read this review. I struggled a lot with The Grey Bastards too… so much. And had a lot of the same gripes, the character motivations, the special snowflake syndrome… ugh, the change in tone to “cloyingly sweet”. I felt for a long time I was the only person who disagreed with this book. And I didn’t even really have an issue with the language (what can I say, I curse like a sailor).

    I’ll admit, I’ve been curious whether French having an editor improved upon the second book at all, but not curious enough to actually try it. Hope your next read is a better one!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I’m really glad I’m not the only one! 😀

      Yes, this book seems to have garnered a lot of goodwill and enthusiasm all around. I was keen to like it, but the flaws were too evident and too many for my taste. It’s an ambitious attempt, and French may get better with time and experience, but with so many books waiting to be read I ultimately don’t think I’ll be willing to give The Lot Lands another try.

      I have no trouble with cursing in books provided it fulfills a certain function – but here the sheer quantity and the affectation of inserting made-up words for curses or body parts were just annoying (especially that nothing else was awarded this dubious privilege). Quims and cods, for pete’s sake! 😛

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  2. I loved this book! Sorry to hear it was rocky for you, but glad that you persevered and that it improved as it went on. The next book is all about Fetching though, and given your thoughts on her, I have a feeling you probably won’t like it too much, haha 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it so much – even if I didn’t 😉 Though I am happy I finished it, as it really improved along the way!
      I didn’t mind Fetching as much as I minded French’s treatment of her – for all his talk about gender equality he made something over-the-top powerful and smart and beautiful out of her – in a way, I don’t think she deserved this fate of a ‘poster girl’, she had a lot of potential 😉

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      • That’s what I mean, I think in some ways he continues the “poster girl” treatment of her in the second book, but I think he also builds a lot on her character. I don’t know, I guess it could go either way for you 😀 If you read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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        • I’ll definitely consider it – thanks for the advice! 😀
          Do you feel the second book is better in the aspects of structure, character development and language?

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  3. Anything that wins something with Lawrence’s name attached to it is immediately suspect in my book. It’s why I never even thought about trying this book.

    From your review it definitely sounds like I made the correct choice, even while you didn’t hate it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • 😂😂😂 there’s certainly something in what you write about Lawrence – I’m not a fan of his either 😉
      I didn’t hate it, but it also wasn’t a great book by any definition of the word. It was ok, however after all the hype I expected something more formidable and frankly better. I think you’d hate it, though, so yeah – good decision to stay away from it 🙂

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  4. I believe the best Orc series i ever read was done by an author not many people seem to know about. A warband of orcs who also have a dwarf among them that start out as a fetch quest but in the end ends up being a fight for freedom. Im still trying to track down a new copy…

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  5. What a coincidence! I’m reading this one now and I’m having fun with the story, although I must admit the… er… strong language feels a little too much at times – not unlike the forced profanity I hear every day from teenagers on the subway. But that might just be my own old-crone-mindset… 🤣
    It’s not a game-changing story, granted, but its newness in putting the “monsters” on the center stage makes it worthwhile.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll be looking forward to your review, then!
      I completely agree – the language seems forced, and a bit unnatural. I’m all for a saucy word here and there, but if it adds up to being the core of one’s vocabulary, things start to look bad to me, old-crone-mindset or not 😂

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  6. This is one that I have heard lots of praise for. I think I’ll have to check it out at some point to see what all the buzz is about, not sure if it’s my type of thing though. But always willing to be proved wrong. 🙂

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  7. Honestly, I’ll consider this a win in my books. And I can definitely see why you had issues with the language but I can assure you that at least the real-life biker gangs in my province are known to have a “swear-filled” vocabulary, and for French’s orcs to have a more sexualized “swear-filled” vocabulary just seem natural to me hahah I’m glad that the world-building was still a highlight for you. It’s what essentially what made it fun for me hahah Great review as always, Ola!

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    • Thanks, Lashaan! ☺️ I don’t mind swearing: it is after all a swift and quite efficient – if simplistic – way to get you in the mood of the novel. It’s just it was distinctly overdone here and coupled with the strong “juvenile criminal” vibe in the end turned out to be rather tiresome – at least for me. Still, despite it all it wasn’t bad by half, so… All I say is it could have been much worse 😄

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  8. Hmm…I might give it another go then. I DNF’d it and had similar problems with it as you did. I suspected it probably got better after I gave up. I stopped when they visit a short priest guy…something like that. The memory is foggy.

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    • Ah well, I’m not planning to read the sequel, if it helps you decide 😉 It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either.

      It does get better after the visit to the Halfling priest, but it also gets more streamlined into the Chosen One mold – though there are a few nice twists along the way 😉

      I guess my biggest problem is the lack of believable motivation for the characters – they all do certain things, like saving an elf girl, or being a special snowflake 24/7, but there’s nothing in their psychological makeup that would readily explain such actions; rather an action happens because it is required for other events to take place.

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  9. It’s really good this won you over, even though you nearly DNF’d it- not many books can turn it around like that! It’s really good to hear the jackass of an mc ends up having a change of heart 😉 I really like the sound of this and definitely want to check it out! Great review!

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