Monday, May 15, 2017

Review: "The Grey Bastards" by Jonathan French

I started reading Jonathan French’s “The Grey Bastards” a few days before it was named the winner of this year’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off. Like its predecessor in the contest, it’s a most worthy recipient.

Numbers-wise, “The Grey Bastards” scored impressively in the second year of Mark Lawrence’s contest. It pulled down an average rating of 8.65 of 10, and scored the only perfect 10 awarded by any blog in the two years of the contest. If I awarded stars or scores here, mine would definitely be in that range.

The book follows the story of Jackal, a member of the half-orc hoof known as The Grey Bastards. After the last incursion of full-blood orcs, the hoofs, formerly kept as slaves, were granted the barren lands known as the Lots for their service to the kingdom of Hispartha. They exist to serve as the last line of defense against another orc invasion.

Jackal is an ambitious young warrior with dreams of one day leading. He questions the decisions made by the hoof’s current leader, the Claymaster, last of the plague-bearers, and the only thing that’s kept him from throwing his axe against the current chief to this point is the lesson of what happened to the last warrior who did, Jackal’s mentor Warbler. Unable to execute his old companion, the Claymaster exiled Warbler from the hoof forever. Jackal has no illusions about how the chief would deal with him.

A series of recent events may force his hand. It begins with the killing of a noble from Hispartha by Fetching – one of Jackal’s closest friends and the first female member of the Grey Bastards – that creates tensions with the hoof’s uneasy human allies. Then, a wizard – the one thing the Claymaster has always wanted in his hoof – just happens to show up at the gate of the Kiln, stronghold of the Bastards, with his own designs.

I’m a sucker for a story that plays with some of the tropes of fantasy and puts a different spin on them, and French does just that in this novel. It’s not a complete 180 since the full-blood orcs are still the evil monsters we’ve come to expect, but he creates a surprisingly sympathetic plight for his half-orcs, most of which are the product of rape and shunned by both sides. While French’s mongrels (their word for themselves) do retain some of the more wild and vicious aspects of their orcish heritage, they seem to have gotten more of the human characteristics. In fact, at times, they seem much more noble than the few humans that we see in the tale.

I also love it when I realize that an author and his characters have me completely wrapped up in the story, and that dawning came with one of the pivotal scenes of “The Grey Bastards.” As it began to unfold, I knew exactly what was about to happen, but I found myself hoping against hope, pleading with the character to make a different decision than what I knew was coming. That kind of emotional ride is the mark of a great story, and I’m willing to come along with any author who can give it to me.

Like Michael McClung’s “The Thief who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids,” which won the SPFBO last year, “The Grey Bastards” represents everything that the contest is built around – fantastic reads from promising writers who, for whatever reason, have flown under the radar of publishers. And, by the way, French is no longer under the radar, as he just inked a publishing deal partially as a result of the win, with “The Grey Bastards” slated for re-release in 2018, so pick up the self-published version while you can or you may have a bit of a wait. And, trust me, you don’t want to wait on this one.


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