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WesternSFA


The Grey Bastards
The Lot Lands # 1
by Jonathan French
Crown, $28.00, 421pp
Published: November 2015

Oh, yeah!  This is my kind of fantasy – lush worldbuilding, complicated yet perfectly normal characters, gritty but perfectly apropos foul language, orcs, wizards….did I mention the elves?  The author admittedly tips his hat to the equally wonderful TV show “Sons of Anarchy” and does it well.

Jackal is a half-orc who belongs to what is essentially a motorcycle club; they ride hogs.  Real hogs…  In this world, there had been a cataclysmic war of humans and elves against orcs.  The human wizards cooked up a nasty plague with the unwilling and unwitting help of half-orcs; products of orcs raping human women.  At a point in the war, the half-orc slaves rose up and helped defeat the orcs.  The threat of the plague kept the orcs to their own lands and the humans divided up their land giving a portion to the elves for their assistance, and a portion to the half-orc saviors.  The half-orcs claimed the desert badlands, called the Lots, forming nine bands of brothers who patrol the desert against incursions from the orcs or the centaurs.

The story starts with Jackal and his two best friends and comrades, Fetching and Oats, and the killing of a young human fop followed by a small incursion of orcs.  Their chief, the Claymaster, was unexpectedly angry that Jackal killed the fool human and then, equally unexpected, allowed a couple of orc survivors to flee alive.  Jackal isn’t the only one to start thinking their old chief has lost his edge and should maybe be replaced.  But before he can start gathering together a coterie to support his bid for the chair, everything gets real complicated.  The dead human was supposed to have just disappeared into the desert; a deserter to his troupe; but his horse returns, raising unwelcome questions. A wizard appears on their doorstep – the like of which has never been seen in the Lots before – but who excites the interest of the chief.  The wizard appears to be both a friend and a danger; playing both Jackal and the Claymaster.  Jackal determines that he has to go to the Marsh to find out for himself why the body and horse weren’t taken care of by the creature, the Sludge Man, who rules the Marsh; the creature who is relied upon to dispose of unlucky bodies. And the wizard manages to find a way to accompany Jackal and his friends on the journey.

Arriving in the Marsh, unannounced, causes Jackal’s troupe to surprise the Sludge Man with his unexpected captive – an Elven girl warrior.  For reasons the author doesn’t clearly state, Jackal makes the decision to rescue the girl and steal her from the Sludge Man.  This is a really bad idea – the Sludge Man is an ally and it’s clear that someone broke treaty to steal and sell an Elf.  Jackal really borrows trouble by saving and caring for the girl; not to mention how horrendously dangerous the Sludge Man can be.  But it starts to become clear to him that there is some kind of conspiracy; he just can’t figure who or why or what.  Who released the fop’s horse to return riderless and cause concern?  Who paid off the Sludge Man with an Elf? Why did Claymaster release the orcs and then make an apparent partnership with a wizard? So many questions, so little information – which doesn’t deter Jackal from jumping to conclusion after conclusion.  His world, which used to be small and predictable, becomes terrifyingly larger with bigger concerns than a mere Orc incursion or a mad centaur on a killing spree.  But he figures if he can just unseat his tyrannical chief and bring order to his brotherhood, he’ll be able to figure it all out.  Jackal is a bit…full of himself.  It takes a betrayal from someone close to him to make him start paying attention to the bigger picture.  A really, really bigger picture…

I thoroughly enjoyed this story.  The characters and the dialogue are wonderfully coarse and vulgar.  The plot was interesting with a lot of bits coming together.  The worldbuilding was excellent.  It’s probably the most interesting fantasy I’ve read in years that involves wizards, orcs and elves; elements I tend to avoid.  Really looking forward to the second book and more answers. ~~ Catherine Book

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