I’m not a massive fan of the age-old saying “Never judge a book by its cover.” I know it’s only a metaphorical phrase, but still … if I see a cover with a crossbow-wielding half-orc riding a massive hog with four tusks then it’d better be a tale full of no-nonsense, vulgar alpha males hell-bent on upsetting the status quo … and for better or for worse, that’s exactly what this book is!
The story sets off with the throbbing roar of a big-cylinder boneshaker and never really takes its foot off the pedal until its bombastic conclusion. Jonathan French’s simple, clean prose helps keep things moving briskly, knowing not to outstay its welcome on the quieter scenes and sprinkling in just enough world-building so we get a sense of how this rag-tag band of outcasts ended up in the unfortunate situation they find themselves in at the start of the novel.
One thing I was pleasantly surprised by was French’s strength in writing compelling characters. A lot of (obvious) comparisons have been made between The Grey Bastards and Sons of Anarchy, and one thing both pieces have in common is their successful depiction of close-knit friendships; that sense of brotherhood that goes beyond petty rivalries and ambition. A special mention must be made for Oats, who follows the main character Jackal through hell and high water, including a slew of questionable decisions that would have sent a less loyal companion running for the hills.
So why not the full five stars, then? If you scroll down the other thousand or so reviews here you will probably quickly find one that echoes my slight discomfort at French’s treatment of the female characters. Apart from the use of language (I mean, I’m no prude, but even I can get tired of the overuse of cunt, cunnie, and pussie …), the only role women seem to serve here is to either get abused, enslaved, or manipulated in some way. Even Fetching, initially depicted as a strong, confident female lead ends up falling into these same unfortunate negative tropes.
It didn’t completely ruin my enjoyment of the book, of course, but it’s certainly worth mentioning and hopefully something French manages to tone down or readjust slightly in future instalments.