About the Book
LIVE IN THE SADDLE. DIE ON THE HOG.
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.
Recently I’ve been a bit sick of grimdark. I haven’t really written the (sub)genre off, but it’s been a category of books that I’ve been avoiding. That being said, I’ve also been sitting around waiting for that one grimdark book to miraculously appear that would revive my passion for the genre as a whole. I wanted to find that book that reminded me about why I enjoy the genre in the first place.
I got this book a few months ago, and I read it way back when, but cancer treatments have kind of fried my memory in some senses, so before I wrote my review of this book I decided to give it a whirl again, just to refresh my memory. Well, days after I started my second read of this book, I learned that my cancer is back (again) and I spent a few days crying and feeling terrible, and then a few days wanting to read a book where a lot of people die in very creative ways.
So, The Grey Bastards kind of hit me right at a point where I was wanting to read something different, something set in a vivid, sprawling world, with a plot that makes sense, and characters that are unique but capable of bleeding lots of blood and throwing the word “fuck” around. Basically, I plowed through this book a second time in about a day. I was reading it while I was getting just about every drop of blood drained from my body so the doctors could analyze all of my something-something-somethings which have something to do with cancer. I was angry and I was depressed and sometimes when those two feelings clash, you just need a book where people bleed.
The Grey Bastards is really a marvel. The characters, half-orcs, ride war-trained boars into battle, and we can really just stop right there and appreciate how freaking amazing that is. Honestly, that fact alone pretty much sealed the deal of my love of this book. The other things which got me almost instantly was how masterfully French worked the plot. It started out small, and through relentless forward motion it turned into something huge, growing on itself until it just became something you never really expected it to become.
Mixed into this are a ton of left turns where I expected things to turn right, a lot of surprises, and things happening that I didn’t expect to happen. This book is also quite visceral and raw at some points. French isn’t afraid to make his characters struggle and suffer. Blood spills, and people curse, and things are dark and grim (hence “grimdark”) but I never really felt like this book crossed the line from necessary to gratuitous, like some grimdark books do.
I enjoyed the relationships and friendships that peppered the book, and how realistic they were to real relationships, reflecting both ups and downs, and how personal growth and development can pull people together, or push them apart. I also enjoyed how French continuously developed his characters throughout the novel, and never really deviated from the central seed of who they were. It was quite brilliantly done.
As for world building, I feel like I need to really tip a hat at French here. He never really made a production out of his world building. Instead he sort of inserted details and development into his story as he went, and never really fell into the infodump that I was so worried about. Like the books I enjoy reading the most, this one kept his world developing as the story unfolded. It was complex, with all those details that I just love, unique, and absolutely engrossing.
The Grey Bastards, as you can tell, is a book that I just absolutely fell in love with. It’s dark and brutal, but it is also unapologetically its own animal. This is unlike any other grimdark books I’ve read recently, and because of that, because of this author’s unique vision and his incredible talent, this one left a mark on me. I want more.