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6 November 2018

Review - The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French

The Grey Bastards
Jonathan French
Orbit, 21 June 2018
PB, 420pp

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance copy of The Grey Bastards.

Live on the Saddle, Die on the Hog

Back in the Summer, the ever generous Nazia recruited me into the Grey Bastards through the ingenious ruse of sending me commissioning papers. (Blogger tip: be VERY CAREFUL when opening any package from Nazia. I wouldn't put it past her to use runes if you upset her.)

I've been worried ever since that Jackal, Fetch and the rest of the Hoof would turn up to ensure I delivered my pledged service - the more so as time drew on. There have been so many great books this year, and they all take time to read properly and digest, so I have deferred my attendance rather, but not wanting to end up at the wrong end of a tulwar or even a stockbow, I am relieved to say that I have now completed my review of The Grey Bastards.

This is a tale of half-orcs, battle and sex. (I'm going to have trouble cross-posting this to Amazon, I can tell already). The titular Bastards are a band ("hoof") of half-orcs, one of a number pledged to defend from the Orcs the land of Ul wundulas, the ruined country knows as the Lot Lands because it's parcelled out among the various hoofs. The land may be home to some, but it's primary important to because the defence of Ul wundulas is the defence of Hispartha, the fertile northern kingdom which the Orcs ultimately covet.

I am summoned!
I loved French's description of the Bastards, their organisation and their world. Roving their Lot on mighty fighting hogs, they are well able to ride down stray Orcs or even small raiding parties - but all dread a new incursion, as happened thirty years before leaving Ul wundulas ruined. Against that day, the leader of the Gray Bastards, the disease raddled Claymaster, seeks a wizard to bolster the Hoof, whose glory days are long gone.

Also featuring elves and halflings, the territory here might seem pretty familiar but French makes it convincing and new, not least through the idiosyncratic language he creates: humans are "frails", Orcs, "thicks", the Elves of Dog Fall, "Tines" and so on. Soon the scrubby, barren land that Jackal and his Hoof shed blood for becomes so, so real, as does the grim reality of the life there.

Because it is grim. Jackals's story begins as one of rivalries within the Hoof - the young bloods are restless under the failing rule of the Claymaster and a lot of time is spent on plots and alliances to replace him. This may seem like a squabble over a very small prize - wouldn't you just want to get out of Ul wundulas? - but an answer to that does emerges, if slowly, and it has to do with loyalty to the Hoof and a curious, perverse love of the land itself. To see that we will have to ride many miles, as French skilfully expands his story to take in the history of the Hoof, wider plots for power and the truly awful reality of what Hispartha's rulers have done in the past. And the seeds are clearly sown for Jackal's role to broaden still further.

It makes for an exciting, engaging story, never far from action and peril which I'd recommend to lovers of fantasy. And this is also very much "history from below". The rulers are definitely the humans of Hispartha, often presented as aristocratic, privileged and hierarchical, dominating the land from their Castile and treating the half-Orcs (and other outcast inhabitants of Ul Wundulas with disdain.

I do have one caveat, though, or perhaps a content warning. The concept of rape is very much ingrained into the background of this world. Not in the events we see - but the very existence of the Bastards, or most of them, derives from the rape of human women by Orcs (the Hoof defends, and recruits from, an orphanage where many of the resulting kids end up). The idea also comes up as a prominent subplot involving the creature known as the Sludge Man and it's used metaphorically too, in the sense of how Ul wundulas has been treated by the Orcs (thereby saving the blushes of dainty Hispartha beyond).

I should stress none of this happens in action that we see in the story, it's more of an underlying reality in the construction of the world.

This is, I know, something that has divided fantasy readers and authors (and bloggers!) and it's not a debate I'm going to rehearse now - but it is a facet of this book that the reader, or some readers, may wish to take into account.

So - am I glad I accepted that commissions and rode with the Bastards? On the whole, yes. Not every facet of their world attracts but there is a power and a flow to this writing that makes me look forward to French's next instalment (obviously this is a series!)

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