The time is ripe for a book like The Grey Bastards. Jonathan French’s debut novel adopts the grim and gritty trappings of so many modern fantasies, but while the brutal setting lends itself to a good deal of cynicism and darkness, the narrative is shot through with a piercing bolt of… optimism. Yes, the Lot Lands are a harsh, war-torn hellscape, but as the story unfolds, there’s a seed of hope—a belief that, with a ton of work, this world could be a better place. It’s a rousing, densely layered fantasy adventure and a testament to the power of a stubborn belief in a better world. It’s grim but not grimdark, because its characters never surrender to cynicism. And if there’s one thing we’ve plenty of, in this world or any invented one, it’s cynicism.
Jackal is one of the Grey Bastards, the most fearsome band of half-orcs in the Lot Lands. He and his hog-riding sworn brothers patrol their homeland, Ul-wundulas, protecting it from orc incursions, centaur raids, corrupt human border guards, and any other threats that might come their way. After a simple misunderstanding at a brothel turns violent, Jackal discovers those closest to him are concealing ugly truths, and soon, he and his friends are facing down all the threats their world can throw at them—centaurs, elves, orcs, sentient magical pollution, a wizard with dangerous ambitions, and a monstrous, well-kept secret. All the while, still darker threats loom on the horizon, calamities that will require the Bastards to make alliances throughout the Lot Lands if they wish to keep their home intact.
Jonathan French takes a more idealistic approach than many of his dark fantasy compatriots. The Lot Lands are a savage place, but not without their heroes. The conflict that drives the plot is essentially triggered by Jackal’s full-hearted attempts to protect his friends. His failures aren’t malicious, but stem from simple misunderstandings or, in one case, due to a massive act of cultural erasure. It is only through their attempts to learn from other cultures and from history that Jackal and his companions tare able to understand what they are truly fighting, and how to stop it.
As a setting, the Lot Lands are both familiar and strange, kept from disaster only by an intricate, ever-shifting system of politics and fragile checks and balances, which our heroes accidentally stumble all over. As Jackal sets out to extinguish the fires (both figurative and literal) raging around them, each new problem reveals more about the world they inhabit. What starts as a group of rough half-orcs and their not quite allies expands via a series of tenuous alliances and backroom deals into a coalition that keeps the entire realm from calamity. Discovering how each disparate region fits with those around it gives the world a lived-in feel; each race or faction builds upon the others, creating a fuller, more intricate mythology.
The Grey Bastards delivers a tonic to fantasy stories of unrelenting cynicism. It refuses to go easy on its heroes, but also recognize that making things hard for them doesn’t mean the book has to be hard on its readers. When it does trade in grimdark tropes, rather than revel in them, it interrogates their presence in the story. It is a story of harsh characters within a harsh realm, but its heroes are trying to do better and be better. And in a world where light and comfort are rare commodities, that makes all the difference.