The clue to what makes the Fantasy genre so great is staring you straight in the face; it is fantastical. It gives author the chance to transport their readers to a different time and place. Lands full of wonder, populated by creatures only seen in your dreams. So, it is sometimes a little sad to see how serious and dark Fantasy has become in recent years. This no doubt reflects our own uncertain times, but do we really need to dwell on the basest things when we could be reading about dragons? Jonathan French not only seems to want to explore the base side of fantasy, but appears to want to dwell a little too long there.
Jackal is a Half-Orc warrior who is part of The Grey Bastards, a troop of fighters who act as a defensive line between the Orc army on one side and that of Man on the other. With his companions at his side Jackal starts to believe that he would make a better leader of the Greys than their current chief, but does he have what it takes. In a world of fighting and destruction, it sometime takes brains to win the day and that is not Jackal’s forte.
Perhaps the title of the book, The Grey Bastards should have foretold me what have expected, but there is no way around it, the characters in this book are not that likable. This is not always the biggest problem in a novel as a good anti-hero can be great fun, but Jackal is not that anti-hero. For all his posturing and swearing, he is really just a hero that happens to be a Half-Orc and is a little filthy. By book’s end you do get to know more about him and French is able to develop the character somewhat, but it takes some time doing this.
To get to this point you are required to wade through some rather robust exchanges between the various members of the Grey Bastards and it seems the main topic of conversation is their members. I am an adult and don’t mind reading a bit of raw language, but after a while it gets boring. The constant reflections on sex and whether one of them happens to be gay gets very tiresome after a while. It is so prevalent in this book that it detracts from what it does well.
World building appears to be one of French’s strengths. The Land of Lots is a great idea and having a bunch of ruffians acting as a buffer zone from a vast Orc army works. By following Jackal on his adventures you learn a lot about the politics of this world, without getting bogged down in them. You also get some great action set pieces; the fights between the hog riding Half-Orcs and their more formidable cousins are particularly spectacular. With all the various factions vying for power, there is plenty more to see from this series.
There is a very solid slice of Low Fantasy at the core of The Grey Bastards, but by telling the story from Jackal’s exclusive point of view, French does not provide the sense of the epic that someone like Joe Abercrombie does. He is able to create an interesting and vibrant world full of action. This is undermined slightly by the amount of sex and sexual references throughout that detracted from my enjoyment somewhat. I am no prude, it just got very boring. With the twists at the end of The Grey Bastards promising a possible new direction for the clan, perhaps the follow up can concentrate more on story and not on giblets.
Written on 28th September 2018 by Sam Tyler.
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