cover image The Grey Bastards

The Grey Bastards

Jonathan French. Crown, $27 (432p) ISBN 978-0-525-57244-2

This terrific and highly original epic fantasy debut focuses on a single small fighting unit: the boar-riding half-orc war band known as the Grey Bastards, “forged in the heat of Ul-wundulas, tempered by the pressure of the badlands, and quenched in the brackish water of life on the hoof.” The coarse nature of French’s half-orcs is immediately on display in the opening scene, in which Grey Bastards Jackal, Oats, and Fetching face off against a squad of human cavalry at the local brothel. A raid by full-blooded orcs, the arrival of an unknown half-orc wizard dubbed “Crafty,” and a confrontation in a nearby swamp with the Sludge Man and some “giant, featureless leeches made of tar” are just the beginning for Jackal and his mixed-gender crew. Meanwhile, the band’s leader, Claymaster, has been crafting nefarious schemes with unclear ends. The plots within and around the Grey Bastards add elements of mystery to the scenes of bloody combat and weird magics. French’s prose, appropriately lowbrow among the half-orcs, is almost poetic at other times. His half-orcs, halflings, centaurs, and others have rich histories and folklore, giving the work depth while never getting in the way of the fun. This is excellent fantasy fare on all levels. Agent: Cameron McClure, Donald Maass Literary. (June)