Review: The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French

Brian G Turner

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I saw this book going for 99p in an Amazon Daily Deal. It didn't look like the sort of book I'd like, but I figured on take a look at the sample anyway.

Chapter 1 was a clear example of how to do infodumping right - just enough context as necessary, with tight writing and pacing. So I read on.

Set on a borderland waste, The Grey Bastards is a generous mix of Western setting in a Fantasy context. But it also has an intentionally brutal and misogynistic tone, and that nearly put me off from continuing.

I'm glad it didn't, because this is one of the better books I've read this year.

It follows Jackal, one of the Grey Bastards - a group of half-orc warriors who ride giant hairy hogs, who are expected to defend a wasteland boundary against Orc incursion, for human masters who care little for any of them. Alongside Jackal are the solid and dependable male friend, Oats - and Fetch, a female who has to fight not just a world that refuses to accept her, but also male friends that would seek to protect her from it.

The story moves fast and is filled with tension. There are various twists and turns, and each time the dial goes up yet another notch. Even when I thought the story couldn't possibly get more intense, it did.

The emotional stakes mirror this - the story isn't just driven by external conflicts, but also the internal ones between the friends. And this is superbly-well handled. Although the grime of the setting is offset somewhat by the humour, it's actually the deep emotional undertones of this story that really make it work.

The only criticism I have of The Grey Bastards is a niggle about the use of language. Sometimes the prose seems written in character voice, other times it isn't. The same applies for dialogue - the main characters uses a lot of slang but never contractions. It's as if an editor pushed too hard on grammatical correctness and the advice was applied too far.

That aside brings me to one of the other big surprises of this novel - that it was originally self-published, only later to be picked up by Orion after becoming a finalist in Mark Lawrence's Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off (2016).

Whatever changes that have been made to the story - for better or worse - the result is a strong and powerful debut. If you enjoy the grim side of fantasy, Jonathan French provides a fresh and engaging voice. I'm very much looking forward to reading more from this series when it comes out.

The Grey Bastards is currently available on Amazon.com and Amazon UK.
 
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