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,    

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