"Live in the saddle, die on the hog."
THE GREY BASTARDS have been on my list of things to review for quite some time but I've been distracted a lot from my reading due to a tidal wave of other good books. Still, I never lost my desire to read about half-orc calvary fighting against full-blooded orcs along the borderlands. The excellent art on its front intrigued me as well. Which goes to show you you can judge a book by its cover.
The premise. as mentioned, is half-orcs are the unloved former slaves of humanity who have been bequeathed the wretched badlands between their territory (Hispathia) and full-blooded orcs (called "thicks"). The half-orcs, who live in nomadic clans called hooves, take pride in their role as humanity's defenders. Jackal is a prostitute-loving young warrior who kills a human nobleman at the start of the book and, after hooking up with a mute elf and a obese half-orc wizard, finds himself neck deep in a conspiracy against the crown.
Jackal is a great protagonist as he has qualities which are rare in fantasy heroes. Specifically, Jackal is easily fooled and aggressively ignorant. I don't mean to say he's drooling imbecile but he's deeply unobservant and takes virtually every character by their word or his own cultural prejudices. Given orcs have a mythology that exalts them and looks down on everyone else, it means his worldview is both believable for him to have as well as incredibly skewed. He's easily taken in by anyone who lies to him (and a lot of characters do).
This adds a level to the narrative as every scene is told from his perspective but the reader is often left to make their own judgements which may or may not disagree with Jackal's own. As far as Jackal is concerned: humanity only exists because of the small orc clans on the border, half-orcs are all honorable warriors, women are to be dismissed (except for his closest friend), gods are for fools, halflings are the biggest fools of them all, elves are purity-obsessed psychopaths, magic is inferior to swordsmanship, and thicks are to exterminated to the last.
Needless to say, his views take a few lumps along the wall.
Part of what males the Stark family entertaining protagonists in A Song of Ice and Fire is, they, too, are deeply conservative "honorable" warriors who were very often ignorant because of their worldview. Jackal's worldview is a bit less noble, especially as he and his brothers are constantly spewing anachronistic curses and slang (particularly against women). The narrative doesn't agree with Jackal or his fellows as they end up in a lot of trouble because of their beliefs.
Still, if the "c-word", "f-word", or "quim" bothers you then be forewarned. Rape is also implied and shown to be (off camera) how the vast majority of half-orcs are created. Local women may lie with half-orcs but regular orcs only propagate through war crimes. Half-orcs, themselves, are sterile and I think that was missed opportunity there. The Grey Bastards "hoof" is homophobic but not aggressively so as they're more put-off by bisexual newcomer "Crafty" than angered.
Despite this, or perhaps in part because, The Grey Bastards is an intelligently-written fantasy drama about warrior cultures and their traditions. A lot of what Jackal believes is the product of his elders feeling them a line of hog-poo in order to make them proud of who they are as well as cover up past sins. When Jackal shows compassion to the women around him, very often he unwittingly condescends to them with his friend Fetch irritated by his actions more than pleased. Indeed, when Fetch backpedals on an action she took earlier in the book, I felt it was dishonest as I fully understood why she "betrayed" Jackal.
Jonathan French has created a very evocative world which I "believed" in. Part of what drew me to grimdark was the presentation of fantasy worlds which were ugly, grimy, and sweat-filled places where you could believe people lived. That certainly was the case in his setting and all of the nasty behavior on display made it feel like actual soldiers and warrior culture (with all the problems thereof) versus the theme park version where everyone is well-behaved. As one history teacher of mine put it, "Chivalry and honor were primarily covers for the fact knights were killers-for-hire."
Are there places I think the book could have benefited from some revision? I think so. I would have loved the perspective of full-blooded orcs on their halfbreed offspring. Humans are complete garbage in this book so I'm not sure why the half-orcs feel defending them is worthwhile. I also found Fetch's characterization a bit unbelievable and preferred her when she was actively hostile to Jackal rather than his secret supporter. Oh well, maybe next book.
In conclusion, I strongly recommend this book and while it's presently out-of-print, it'll be returning to in a few months. It's definately a book which earns its grimdark status, though, and is more The Hound and Bronn than Ser Barriston Semly.