THE GREY BASTARDS, by Jonathan French (DNF)


This book sat for some time on my TBR before I finally picked it up, despite my curiosity to sample it given the many enthusiastic reviews from my fellow bloggers and the promise of a different kind of fantasy story, one where the proverbial bad guys – in this case half-orcs – were the heroes and not the villains.

The novel approach was indeed a welcome change from the usual narrative tracks, but unfortunately the delivery did not work for me: to be honest I kept trying to remember that with a debut work I should have given this book a wider latitude and exercised more patience, but when I reached the point of “too much is indeed too much” I saw no other option than to give up reading and move toward greener pastures.

The Lot Lands are a harsh, dangerous place where – after long conflicts and a devastating plague – a multitude of creatures has come to live: reclusive Elves, rampaging Centaurs, a smattering of Humans and the half-orcs, the product of a forced mating between humans and full-blooded orcs. The latter now and then still trespass into the area in search of plunder, and that’s where the half-orc bands – or hoofs – come into play as a defensive force, mounted on specially bred wild pigs called barbarians whose loyalty and intelligence are highly valued.

Jackal, Oats and Fetching (the only female of the Grey Bastards hoof – and probably the only female ever admitted into a band) are very close comrades, and at the very beginning of the book they clash with a troop of human soldiers killing one of them and setting in motion an unpredictable chain of events whose consequences might be ranging even farther than they can imagine, or that I could imagine, since I chose to desist at roughly one-third of the way.

As I said, the premise is an interesting one, even though the story went all over the place with no indication of a precise concatenation of events: it’s quite possible that the disparate situations DID come to a confluence at some point, but since I lacked the willpower to reach it I guess I will never know…. What turned me away from The Grey Bastards was a growing annoyance with two of its major components, one being the foul language used with irrepressible glee: granted, in the kind of background and company described in the book, profanity would be a major ingredient, but the frequency with which it was used went well beyond any reasonable narrative need and quickly turned into the kind of fixation for repeating a newly-learned four-letter word we see children indulge in, using and abusing it for its shock value. I am far from prudish and understand that harsh language and a harsh world go hand in hand, but the effectiveness of vulgarity is inversely proportional to its frequency, so that the profusion of f-bombs, crude sexual references and their many combinations quickly went from colorful to bothersome, and a distraction from the story itself. More than once I was reminded of something a wise friend told me once about the excessive use of coarse expletives in any conversation: that it’s a filler for the lack of appropriate language to express one’s thoughts, and ultimately the indication of a lack of thoughts as well. Not exactly the best endorsement for any story…

My other point of contention comes from the portrayal of women: again, I know that the chosen background is far from conducive to female agency, but why are the women in this story relegated to the roles of either caregiver (just one, as far as I went) or whore? No, that’s not right: there are also one woman warrior, with a chip on her shoulder that’s even bigger than the hog she rides on, and an elf who was the prisoner of a foul creature and the victim of orkish rape, which resulted in a pregnancy. Not the best kind of representation, from my point of view. The proverbial “oldest job” appears to be the only one ever considered for women, because in this world there seems to be no place for, I don’t know, a village baker or vegetable grower: if one does not find employment in the orphanage where youngsters are raised, all she has to look forward to is the brothel, or the bunk of a warrior as his personal bedwarmer. That’s all, and it’s a dismal summation, indeed – hopefully just an over-the-top description of this world and not the author’s view on life…

Before posting this review I re-read the ones from my fellow bloggers that compelled me to try The Grey Bastards, and came to the conclusion that this might be a classic case of “it’s not you, it’s me”. Not my kind of book, sorry.


My Rating:

35 thoughts on “THE GREY BASTARDS, by Jonathan French (DNF)

  1. I did enjoy this one I confess but at the same time I can completely see where you’re coming from and have read similar thoughts from other bloggers. It’s not a book for everyone. Interestingly, the second book, as it happens, is from a female pov but I’ve not picked it up yet.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love to read your thoughts on this book, especially since they are so different from other reviews I’ve read. And now that I think about it, many reviewers that loved this were male😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That sounds horrible! I’m glad you took one for the team here.. I wouldn’t have been okay with the portrayal of women either.. Same with the language. I don’t mind swearing here & there but if it happens too much, I get annoyed.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved this book, but I can definitely see how those reasons you mentioned could completely tank it for you. The foul language and the horrific conditions for women were two aspects that were deeply ingrained in the half-orcs’ culture so yep, I can see how that would sour you! I do wonder if book 2 might work better for you though, because Fetching is the protagonist, and the elf in this book also returns and her story (along with the pregnancy) becomes a major turning point in the plot.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeeees but you know how much tolerance I have for these tropes (and how little patience I have with authors who embrace them without challenging them 😂). The swearing I might get past, but the female rep? I think the book would sail out the window 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  5. It happens. I find a lot of the books I DNF are the ones people either love or hate with little middle ground. I always feed bad about abandoning a book, but forcing myself to slog through something I’m not enjoying won’t serve anybody.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I keep debating whether to buy this one and keep getting other books instead. In part I think it’s cuz many reviews have similar comments as yours and maybe I’ll enjoy something else more. I’m still debating. Thanks for the review!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I can totally relate to your woes here! I did finish this book, and it did pick up significantly after about two-thirds, but I came pretty close to DNFing it too… I understand the allure for the other reviewers, but to me the problems of this book were difficult to look past and enjoy the rest 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I think these are completely valid criticisms Maddalena! I had totally different issues with this book (it’s lack of plot, as you pointed out, and it being insanely overwritten is another), but those are probably the lesser of the problems. I think I’m just so used to the lack of female agency and profanity in any amount has never really bothered me, so they weren’t the reason for me deciding I didn’t actually want to continue the series.

    Anyway- hope your next read is better!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Regarding the lack of female agency- what I meant to say, is not that it’s in any way right, but I just have read a lot of books like this and while I’m not blind to it, I am used to it (and sadly, half expect it in books like this).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, the background chosen for the story does not call for ass-kicking heroines and bold breakers of chains 😀 so I can understand the secondary role of women in this kind of context. But since the women depicted there almost entirely consisted of one care-giver and a plethora of bed-warmers, I think things had been taken a bit too far… 😜

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I can totally understand. I didn’t like the story much to begin with even outside of that so I don’t blame you at all for DNFing. I read a sample of the sequel and noped it immediately so you definitely aren’t alone.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks for this lovely review. I kept putting this on and off the list. This convinces me that I do not need to read this one. I like some of the ideas but think I would just get annoyed. And I swear like a sailor. Arrrr!
    x The Captain

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Aw man, I’m sorry to hear about this disappointment. I’m not sure what it says about me but I ended up adoring this world BUT I can totally understand the issues you ran into. The vocabulary and the representation of women in this world, at least in The Grey Bastards so far, is indeed something that would be repulsive if seen in our time. I hope you won’t run into another one of these for a while now. Great review nonetheless, Maddalena! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!
      While I’m aware that the representation of women in medieval (or similar) societies leaves no room for ass-kicking heroines, the way they are portrayed in Grey Bastards felt quite over-the-top from my point of view. But, as I alway say, being an old, curmudgeonly nit-picker, that seems to go with the territory… 😀 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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