I am not entirely convinced that this book should be termed grimdark though. Sure, there was a lot of crude language in this story that is set mainly within the forsaken badlands of Ul-wundulas, the home of the half-orcs whose society and culture are largely misogynistic. However, aside from a few less savoury personalities, the main protagonist and key supporting characters do have strong moral values. While this in itself does not define the sub-genre, the numerous fighting and action scenes were also far from being gory and visceral.
The story follows the third person perspective of Jackal, a young, ambitious and sometimes carelessly confident member of the Grey Bastards, who had set his eyes on removing and replacing its current leader, the Claymaster. A leader whom Jackal viewed as being past his time and had not been making the right decisions for the future of the hoof, one of the brotherhoods that patrolled Ul-wundulas against the threat of orcs. The narrative started off on a relatively small scale and the worldbuilding gradually revealed accordingly. Instead of bombarding the reader with loads of info-dumping, the author managed to weave the exposition of the world The Grey Bastards was set in, its history and inhabitants, throughout the progressive unveiling of the plot. What this achieved was an even pacing of the story with just some acceptable meandering at times into the history of the Ul-wundulas and Hispartha, wherein the humans reside.
This land was forgiven and forgiving, resting imperiously above its oft-raped sister. Ul-wundulas had no more tears, for itself or its people, it was used up, and bitter with the knowledge that its hideous, sun-scorched surface would not save it from another assault. Yet noble Hispartha was flush and unspoiled, content to ignore the ravages of time and invasion so long as the dusty thighs of Ul-wundulas lay spread between it and Dhar’gest.
Oppression of the minority is hardly something new. The originality of this tale came from the approach that author took to integrate this theme from the point-of-view of a traditionally less-favoured race, albeit these are only half-orcs, and not their full-blooded savage relatives. Aside from humans and orcs being inhabitants of this world, we also have elves which retain the fantasy convention of mystery, grace and beauty, a dwarven-like race called halflings and a reclusive and violent version of centaurs (which are known by a most unflattering but hilariously vulgar name among the half-orcs).
The character development of Jackal was executed skilfully as the sequence of ever-escalating problems forces his maturity. His relationships with his best friends, Oats and Fetching, made the story more compelling. However, my absolute favourite aspect of the characterization of the half-orcs was the connection between the riders and their battle hogs, more affectionately known as barbarians. For their seemingly brutish facade, these riders truly love their hogs; the loyalty and care demonstrated was truly heart-warming. In fact, Jackal’s Hearth and Oats’ Ugfuck (guess what it is short for) are two of my favourite characters in this book - swine with personalities. The supporting characters were also fully fleshed-out, each and every one of them have distinct personalities which are relatable and realistic.
The antagonists were also well-portrayed with believable motivations that I can empathise with. In fact, it is difficult to tag anyone as a villain per se. Even the creepy Sludge Man was not exactly evil in its truest sense. Speaking of which, I really love the worldbuilding element of a skin-crawling eerie bog called the Old Maiden protected by inky sludge creatures and its master; a land and its occupants transformed through the corruption of conflicting magical energies.
Seek potent allies and you shall find the most grievous of your future foes.
Plot-wise, The Grey Bastards deviates from standard predictable fantasy fare. Allies and foes are not immediately identifiable. And just when I thought I might have an inkling of what might transpire, I was proven wrong most of the times. Something that I really liked in my books as it kept me on my toes and the pages turning. The last quarter of the book was hard to put down with a really exciting climax. To cap it all off, the ending wrapped up the plot nicely, leaving just enough of a teaser for the next book.
The prose was fluid with occasional purple tendencies, which did feel a bit out of place at times. The vulgarity was off the charts. While it was highly entertaining and I admit to laughing out loud many times, there were a few instances of rather unpleasant sexist remarks. As such, as much as I enjoyed reading this remarkable story, I will not readily recommend this to anyone who may be offended by the language in this book. However, if you live for an entertaining read filled with filthy dialogue, as well as a well-plotted story with heart and great action scenes, The Grey Bastards will be right up your alley.
The self-published edition of The Grey Bastards has been removed from sale as of 1st June and will be re-released in 2018 with a major publishing house. Hopefully, this will address the intermittent typos throughout the narrative. It will also be most useful to have a cartographer create a map; a must-have in fantasy books set in different worlds.