The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French


Rating:  ★★★1/2

This book was the 2016 winner of Mark Lawrence’s Self Published Fantasy Blog Off.  Supposedly- it has the highest score of any self published fantasy to enter the contest (and the book eventually scored a major publishing deal). The easiest way to sum it up is to imagine if Sons of Anarchy was a fantasy told by half-orcs who rode literal hogs.  The language is filthy.  (Lawrence said: “[This is] the filthiest fantasy book [he’s] read.”  That’s pretty high praise coming from him I’d imagine but he’s not wrong.)  There is cussing, dick jokes, fart jokes, sex talk galore.  So if this is not your thing, turn away now.

It is a lot of fun. I can’t fault any of the book for not being fun. The characters, the banter, the action, the language, all of it was fun. I absolutely adored the Jackal and Oats bromance that was going on. Loved old War-boar and Kal’huun. Truly I found something to like about all of them, and that’s pretty rare.

However, I had a lot of issues with this book. First- it is outrageously wordy. I can’t believe that when this was picked up by Penguin/Random House they let it go to print with this many words. It’s over written to the point of being confusing. I had to re-read stuff. In a book like this- which I took lightly and to be pure, mindless entertainment, confusion and re-reading should just not be a thing. I skimmed 90% of a fight scene because it went on for, I kid you not, eight pages. A single fight scene. Between just two half-orcs. You want to write a battle scene that goes on for eight pages?  Knock yourself out.  A single fight scene?  Yeah, no.  I skipped right to the end.  To show what I mean about the wordiness (and I am just opening to a random page here, this is the second sentence):

“Beneath the sunrise, the crumbling buildings composed a carcass, a decrepit pilgrim dead of thirst within reach of water.” (I’m still not sure what this means or why it was necessary.)

“The bridge was an ancient construction, yet stood sound while the surrounding buildings of Hisparthan architects slowly fell to rubble, shaming the genius of their Imperial forebears.”  (This is not confusing, there are just too many words.  I could have done without everything that came after rubble.)

Have you ever seen that episode of Friends, where Ross teaches Joey how to use a thesaurus? And the sentence: “They are warm, nice people with big hearts” becomes: “They are humid, prepossessing homo sapiens with oversized aortic pumps.” This entire book reminds me of that scene. With EXTRA FUCKING WORDS.

I just can’t.

So the writing was a huge issue for me. Aside from that- the info dumps. Lord have mercy the fucking info dumps. Chapters and chapters of them.

Listen- I love when an author thinks that much about their world. Really I do. Because it is important. I just don’t want them to tell me about it. I want them to write it all down somewhere, store it in their heads, and then write the book. That way it all comes out naturally, in small unfolding details.

Can I tell you about the orc incursion? Well can I tell you about it again? Oh wait, I told you the wrong version. Let me tell you a third time.   (There was lots of eye-rolling happening on my end whenever the orc incursion came up.)

My third issue came from the plot. I honestly had no idea what it was until the book was mostly done. First I thought it was one thing- then that particular climax came halfway through. It took about 75% for me to have some idea of where the book was headed and to finally be able to cheer the characters on. Everything up until that point felt like a bunch of unrelated events all strung together that our main character was investigating for no reason at all.

Now I know I’ve been pretty harsh. So I’m going to end by saying again that in the end I did have fun.  I’m not sure I liked the ending- but I might check out book two. I’m hoping the presence of a professional editor from the beginning will fix a lot of the issues I had with The Grey Bastards.

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