Jim Cornelius is an independent historian of frontiers and the author of Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans. He blogs at FrontierPartisans.com and RunningIronReport.com.
When the gods of Blood and Thunder drop a book on you from a great height, there’s an implicit demand that one ignores at one’s peril.
A couple of months ago I was heading out on a business trip and was casting about for an engaging, immersive — and most importantly fun — read; one that strummed the right chords but wasn’t related to a project or anything that feels like work. That can be a problem for me. I kept running across an author named Jonathan French and a book titled The Grey Bastards.
“Sons of Anarchy in Middle Earth!” or “Mad Max in Tolkien’s Middle Earth!”
Solid marketing, that, if a little heavy-handed. It succeeded in luring me down the trail. I watched a video blog by the author, where he talked about his literary influences. The man who made him want to write was… Robert E. Howard. Of course it was. All right, I like this guy. Maybe I’ll bite…
Then a friend turned up with a review copy that he couldn’t get to and I saddled up and off I rode off into a world where brotherhoods of half-orcs known as hoofs “patrol their unforgiving country astride massive swine bred for war.” That’s right, the traditional fantasy bad guys are the “good guys,” and they ride hogs. Literally. Could be too cute by half, but damned if it ain’t just a ripping yarn, and well-wrought by a writer who is manifestly in love with his craft.
French rides the SOA analog hard — right up to the edge of too hard. The protagonist is a young, smart comer named Jax, I mean Jackal, who just maybe doesn’t grasp the big picture as well as he thinks he does…
But French has command of his story and his characters, and it doesn’t take long to simply fall into the tale on its own terms. That’s largely down to French’s exceptionally deft touch with pacing. That’s remarkable for a debut novel, and it’s perhaps the strongest aspect of The Grey Bastards. There’s plenty of action and twists and sufficient character crisis to keep you turning the pages to see what happens next (the cardinal virtue of a well-wrought tale) interspersed seamlessly with interludes that serve not only to break the action but to develop the characters and their relationships.
Those who thrive on intricate and extensive world building may find the architecture here a little sparse. Readers like me, who find elaborately created fantasy worlds tedious, French’s lean approach is a feature, not a bug.
The focus is on character, and the action reveals that character, which, for me, is the essence of storytelling. The struggles of French’s half-orcs have something worthwhile to say about friendship and loyalty. And, praise be, while the Bastards are a rough bunch and the world they inhabit is carnal and as foul-mouthed as Deadwood, South Dakota, this is no “grimdark” fable wallowing in nihilism. French may “take the classic Tolkien races and get them laid,” but he is not about subverting the tower the Professor built. As in Tolkien, friendship matters — maybe above all else.
That thrums a deep chord with me — as does most of what French is about in this tale. In the promotional materials that accompanied my review copy, French explains his affection for his outcaste ne’er-do-wells in a manner that resonates with my ongoing obsession with men of the frontier borderlands who are caught between cultures and struggling to form their own identity and maintain their independence:
It certainly was for me.