(2018) Jonathan French, Orbit, £8.99 trdpbk, 420pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51164-1
Orcs have been elevated from fantasy cannon fodder figures to central characters from Grunts by Mary Gentle onwards, and this is one of the best examples of the sub-genre.
The bastards are actually half-orc offspring from women raped by humans and orcs during various incursions. They were treated as slaves until they proved to be great warriors during a desperate war, which gained them their freedom. Their soldiers ride into battle on pigs.
There is a lot of seχ and violence and more swearing than in most books I ever read here, but given the harsh, hostile life and desert realm the characters inhabit, it comes across as very realistic and natural.
The Grey division protects a neutral zone brothel and orphanage village surrounded by orcs, humans, elves and centaurs. The orphans are the children created through the mostly cross-species couplings.
The small protective band fight, drink and make love hard, but have a brutally harsh democratic code bordering on chivalry. Promotion and rank is gained democratically, but failing to win a campaign that you have initiated leads to execution, or exile, on the whim of the victorious opposition.
This is unfortunate for Jackal, a he realizes that his leader, The Claymaster, can no longer be trusted, and events push him to lead a coup that threatens to split the bastards into two camps, with Jackalís girlfriend, Fetching, potentially leaning in favour of the opposition.
Jackal is a terrific character in that he often leaps o impetuous conclusions. He thinks he has worked out what is going on, only to find that he has worsened a much more complex and dangerous situation. The story really deals well with people with a limited World view finding that they are part of a much broader landscape and that nothing is ever as simple as it initially appears.
After his team kill a human brigand who is posing a threat to the brothel girls, Jackalís efforts to hide the body and dispose of the horse backfire. Trying to find out why his orders were not followed leads him to a dark discovery of elven maidens being kidnapped as seχ slaves, an attempt to turn the half-orcs into plague carriers (actually a re-launch of events tied to their origin) and a plan by a small desert state community to overthrow an entire orc continent.
At the thick of it is The Claymaster, who has done much that is genuinely heroic, but now he is bringing in a wizard, a cryptic figure aptly called Crafty, whose motives and real loyalties keep the reader guessing for much of the novel.
While this is a World where women have been raρed and imprisoned, it is a far from seχist work. Jackal and Fetching have a genuine bond, and their concern for the rescued elf girl, Starling, is beautifully realised. The half-orcs respect their mothers and carry a protective desire to save other women from sharing their fate. Jackal explains why he named Fetching as he did. In a world where women are seen as being there to raρe or have fetching food and drink to the table, it is better protection to be seen as Fetching than the alternative. He knows that he is consigning her to the lesser of two evil positions in a male dominated world, and it is clearly a condition he wants to change, though such radical transformations are beyond his power.
Fetching has a fierce independence of her own, and makes it clear that she needs little protecting, as well as proving that she is making complex, difficult decisions to protect Jackal from those who are seeking his downfall too.
Jackal comes across as a mutant working class Lancelot, caught up in machinations way above his station and expected position. He is a barbarian with great nobility and a code of honour.
French creates a credible, extremely harsh desert and swamp landscape. The Grey Bastards have a kiln-fortress where the corridors can be steam heated to boil the incoming enemy alive, and the reader feels the tension-heat of the whole presentation of this quite tangibly.
Battle scenes are very well conveyed, with the Bastards riding into the fray with suicidal berserker abandon many times, with only Jackal trying to be tactical in his stance. The division are always concerned for one another despite endangering themselves.
Riveting action, very well worked out characters, a complex political landscape and after a post-climax wind down, that takes rather too long to tidy up minor loose ends, takes us to a strong open door to further adventures.
French wisely provides no map to this fantasy land, and though depicting a large desert land, much of the action is confined to a small claustrophobic neutral border region, with a sense of danger closing in rather than the quest story approach where the hero goes out to face unknown perils at every turn. Even exiled for much of the middle portion of the book, Jackalís attention is very much on home and getting back to protecting his loyal friends. He is a man doomed to discover that everything he knows and believes is wrong. His conviction that the bastards earned their freedom from slavery just from sheer military courage is a shattered myth that will haunt him, and the readers alike for some time to come.
The story also features the most terrifying use of rats in torture since Winston Smith discovered the horror of Room 101 in Orwellís 1984.
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