Summary: Such is the creed of the half-orcs dwelling in the Lot Lands. Sworn to hardened brotherhoods known as hoofs, these former slaves patrol their unforgiving country astride massive swine bred for war. They are all that stand between the decadent heart of noble Hispartha and marauding bands of full-blood orcs.
Jackal rides with the Grey Bastards, one of eight hoofs that have survived the harsh embrace of the Lots. Young, cunning and ambitious, he schemes to unseat the increasingly tyrannical founder of the Bastards, a plague-ridden warlord called the Claymaster. Supporting Jackal’s dangerous bid for leadership are Oats, a hulking mongrel with more orc than human blood, and Fetching, the only female rider in all the hoofs.
When the troubling appearance of a foreign sorcerer comes upon the heels of a faceless betrayal, Jackal’s plans are thrown into turmoil. He finds himself saddled with a captive elf girl whose very presence begins to unravel his alliances. With the anarchic blood rite of the Betrayer Moon close at hand, Jackal must decide where his loyalties truly lie, and carve out his place in a world that rewards only the vicious.
This is another book that simply did not live up to the hype for me. The worldbuilding was fantastic and the plot was interesting, but the gratuitous sexism and character interaction simply did not work for me.
The Good: I thought the worldbuilding was phenomenal and I can see why that aspect alone allowed it to do so well in the SPFBO contest. The world of The Grey Bastards is gritty and grim, where each day is another fight for survival and I could genuinely feel the Bastard’s struggles to survive. Half-orc warbands aside, there is the human kingdom of Hispartha cowering behind half-orcs from the orcish armies at their doorstep, elves vicious but hidden in their forests, scattered halfling camps devoted to their god, and bloodthirsty centaurs frenzied by their Betrayer Moon. While French sticks for the most part with very Tolkien-esque characteristics for each race, he adds more than enough detail and builds up the culture around each race that they didn’t feel like carbon copies of LoTR. The one exception to this was the halflings, which shares similarities with hobbits only in height. The halflings of this book are these religious fanatics that have wandered the land in search of remnants of their god’s past. If there’s anything I’d want to see in the second book, it would be the consequences of some of the events that happened with the halflings in the first book.
The other part I enjoyed was the plot. The first half of the book starts pretty slowly, introducing the reader to the world and really setting the mood for the rest of the book. However, after certain events about halfway through, the pacing really picks up and deeper secrets are quickly revealed that really turn the world upside down. This was due in part because Jackal had stronger motivations. The first half of the book he has mysteries but seemed to be coasting. The second half there are suddenly consequences and time limits that really push him (and the plot) along.
The Bad: The biggest detractor, for me, was this book’s treatment of female characters and women as a whole. I know there are people who say it’s grimdark and therefore everyone has shitty lives, women especially. For me, just because something is grimdark doesn’t mean women have to be singled out and targeted specifically just to show how ‘grimdark’ it is. I would also like this much more if the female characters weren’t defined almost exclusively by their figure and willingness to sleep with the Bastards. I think with every female character introduced, within the first two sentences of their introduction Jackal manages to throw in a comment about their curviness/breasts and who they’re sleeping with. The fact that the female half-orcs of the Grey Bastards are literally referred to as bedwarmers is frankly uncomfortable to read.
The worst part, however, was the fact that this book flat out failed the sexy lamp test. To quote the creator, “If you can take out a female character and replace her with a sexy lamp, YOU’RE A FUCKING HACK.” There was a female character, rescued by Jackal very early on, who failed this test. Jackal spent a solid third of the book ferrying her from place to place and reading his thoughts about her, it was frustrating to see that he clearly did not view her as anything more than an object to use to accomplish his plans. Even worse, she all but never spoke, and never to Jackal. She makes noise once off-screen to tell a Bastard her name, which gets related to Jackal. She speaks again off-screen to say something to another Bastard. Even worse, while she’s asleep one night, Jackal watches over her and has a Very Graphic rape fantasy about her. Never, in this entire book, does she do anything to develop her character. At all.
Finally, while I was warned the Bastards were somewhat frat-like, I didn’t realize how bad it would be. It felt like at least once every other page, someone’s genitals were mentioned. I don’t consider myself a prude but that was too much for me. It got to the point where it simply seemed gratuitous and unnecessary. I understand the author trying to give an impression of these hard-life soldiers that have a very frat-like bond, but as someone who doesn’t see the appeal in those types of communities, I just couldn’t get into it. Even times where life-shattering information was about to be given, one of the Bastard’s decided it was appropriate to first make a pass at their one female member.
Overall, I rate this book at 3.5/5. While I loved the worldbuilding and plot in the second half, I simply could not put aside the treatment of the female characters. I would recommend this to people who enjoy gritty grimdark novels and can stomach rampant sexism.
/r/fantasy 2018 Bingo Squares
- Novel that was reviewed on /r/Fantasy
- Self-Published novel
- Novel Published in 2018 (kind of)
- Novel with Fewer than 2500 Goodreads Ratings (562 at time of posting)