Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Grey Bastards, by Jonathan French. A spoiler review

I try to observe a rule not to read other people's reviews of something that I've read until after I have written my own, lest their opinions should colour mine.  So I am writing this review of The Grey Bastards in some haste so I can freely indulge my curiosity about what other friends and reviewers have thought of this brilliant and fascinating tale.

Of the last twenty books I have read, The Grey Bastards will be the fourth that I have been introduced to via Mark Lawrence's Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off. This is, I think a testament to the competition's success in lifting some very good books above the noise signal and anti-selfpublishing snobbery that has hidden some remarkable talents from a wider audience.

The Grey Bastards came first in the 2016-17 contest and is an extremely well polished book - even if its protagonists are as rough as sandpaper toilet tissue. The story's feet appear planted in the Dungeons and Dragons milieu of my youth - huge birds called rokh and amorphous digesting blobs called black sludges could have sat quite happily between the pages of the Monster Manual. The Grey Bastards are themselves a troop (or rather a hoof) of hog riding half-orc cavalry who we see and bond with through our point of view protagonist - Jackal. Jackal himself, is young, ambitious and - if not exactly handsome - at least less intrinsically ugly than others of his kin.

Make no mistake, this is a brilliant book, that challenges the reviewer only in knowing where to begin tackling the task of describing it, much as one might wonder how to bring down Jackal's brother in arms the mountainous and formidable thrice blood - Oats.

Thrice bloods are one of French's many linguistic, cultural or even biological developments that add a deep and rich additional dimension to what - in other hands - might have been a mere parade through a flat role playing campaign.  The half-orcs are all bastards, beget by orcish rapes - fierce and formidable fighters the various hoofs have become part of the Empire's defense against orcish incursions. Thrice bloods are the most formidable half-orcs, born of a half-orc mother and an orc father. The half orc hoofs - and other re-purposed denizens of familiar myth - each patrol their own parcel (or lot) of the near lawless borderlands between the orcs and the empire. The lots are a barren dangerous place - home only to those who have no other place to turn to - a wild land that makes the wild west look like a kindergarten's playground - where the only safety is in the mutual loyalty and reliance of belonging to a group.

I daren't say too much more of the plot - this is a book to discover for yourselves.

It is perhaps fair to warn you that - from the very outset - the tone and language of our half-orc hero and his friends is beyond bawdy, beyond coarse and yet all the more believable for it. These are the roughest of rough soldiers bound by the close knit camaraderie and carnal preoccupations of many a troop of specialist mercenaries operating under near constant duress. I have seen the like of their crude language previously only in Jeff Salyards' coarse-tongued Syldoon soldiers who rode through the Bloodsounder's arc trilogy.  However, the fluent variety of the Grey Bastard's cursing might raise a blush even in Lieutenant Muldoos.

However, the story is no testosterone driven male monopoly. The female characters - Fetching (the half-orc warrior), Beryl (sometime nursemaid, sometime director of the half-orc orphanage), Delia (the whore who dares) amongst several others are all given agency and screen-time aplenty and you come to love and fear for them as much - if not more so - than for Jackal himself.

French's half-orcs are eloquently, entertainingly, crudely, witty, but his writing is also skillfully evocative in its descriptions. Some of the lines that caught my eye include
"... there was a threat buried in the thick folds of politeness."
"The morning sky was newborn, still jaundiced before a proper sunrise."
"... the wet defeat in her eyes betrayed she did not know how to proceed."

The action scenes are gripping, the technicalities of hog cavalry warfare absorbing, the pacing brilliant. I consumed the last 43% of this book in a single evening - breathlessly borne along through a sequence of ascending climaxes (of the plot variety). The various threads of the story wound round and through each other to an ending that was so beautifully perfectly fitting that I put down the kindle with a sense of utter satisfaction.

This is a tale of the fellowship, of the loyalty that each individual must bear to the greater whole - and in the final analysis due recognition must be and is paid to the one willing to sacrifice everything for the others,    

Nothing is Ever Simple - Corin Hayes book two by G.R.Matthews

This is the second book in G.R.Matthews' series of underwater dystopian sci-fi series.  It sees our hero on a mission to a different underwater city - one that is neither silent nor homely.  The nature of Corin's work, his past, his setting, and his personality - make for a man born and borne by solitude. In consequence we spend a lot of time in Corin's head seeing the world through the grim and slightly distorting lens of his experience.

Corin's is an engaging voice - world-weary but still wise-cracking, with some quotes sharp enough to cut.  For example, "We hold onto our past, sometimes with fingers dug so deep into its flesh that we are part of it."

Book 2 carries us in a different direction, both geographically and narratively, from Book 1.  The threads of personal tragedy and deferred vengeance are left dangling as fresh challenges and swift undercurrents sweep Corin into new and deep dangers,

After the distinctive noir-ness of Corin's voice, the next feature of the book to catch the eye is the world building. In a population condemned to living at the bottom of its oceans, there will be many difficulties of economy, nutrition and society to address.

Long ago I watched a horror/sci-fi film about a team of divers investigating a Titanic like sunken liner decades after it foundered. They found against any expectation that there were survivors - that shocked moment when the diver's torch sweeps over a porthole and a live face peers back. They had fashioned some kind of existence within the sunken hull all led by an extremely resourceful purser.  (Oh the joys of the internet - somebody else roused by the same curiosity of imperfect memory asked the same question and got an answer The film was led not by Vincent Price as I had thought but Christopher Lee and is titled Goliath Awaits )

Just as the sunken survivors of the Goliath had to be resourceful and inventive, so too Matthews lavishes care and thought on how some kind of normality might assert and define itself in such submerged circumstances as Corin's world faces. It makes for an engaging and thought provoking read.

The plot is at once simple and complex. There are bad guys who put Corin in danger and he has to work his way out of it. Their motivations and the routes to confound them prove somewhat tortuous. I read the Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep a long time ago and the plot to Nothing is Ever Simple has the same kind of organic style. The story appears to advance by the author throwing a series of curve balls at his protagonist and then following his reactions.  In that sense, the plot feels more like the gym in which Matthews tests and develops his world building and the protagonist's persona, rather than the engine which drives the plot. Nonetheless it rattles along at a good pace.

I will again raise reservations about the freedom with which Corin uses blunt instruments. People are bludgeoned into lengthy periods of unconsciousness with the same abandon that I last saw in a Modesty Blaise book (and before that in early Enid Blyton's).

While my younger self accepted this, decades of watching the TV show Casualty have heightened my knowledge of subdural haematomas - while health and basic safety training taught me to treat any potential concussion with extreme caution.  So my suspension of disbelief skated over some thin ice (in so far as a suspension can skate) when Corin bound up an unconscious villain and blithely waited hours for the fellow to make a natural and total recovery.

Those reservations aside, Corin continues to be an engaging and readable hero in a radically different but eminently sustainable setting.