In many fantasy novels, the hero — or at least the main characters — are humans, or maybe human-adjacent creatures like hobbits. But in The Grey Bastards (hardcover, Kindle), writer Jonathan French centers the first book in his epic fantasy series around some rather inhuman orcs.
Photo Credit: Casey Gardner
To start, what is The Grey Bastards about?
Always the hardest part for the author, but here goes: Live in the saddle. Die on the hog. Such is the creed of the half-orcs dwelling in the Lot Lands. Sworn to hardened brotherhoods known as hoofs, these former slaves patrol their unforgiving country astride massive swine bred for war. They are all that stand between the decadent heart of noble Hispartha and marauding bands of full-blood orcs.
Jackal rides with The Grey Bastards, one of eight hoofs that have survived the harsh embrace of the Lots. Young, cunning, and ambitious, he schemes to unseat the increasingly tyrannical founder of The Bastards, a plague-ridden warlord called The Claymaster. Supporting Jackal’s dangerous bid for leadership are Oats, a hulking mongrel with more orc than human blood, and Fetching, the only female rider in all the hoofs.
When the troubling appearance of a foreign sorcerer comes upon the heels of a faceless betrayal, Jackal’s plans are thrown into turmoil. He finds himself saddled with a captive elf girl whose very presence begins to unravel his alliances. With the anarchic blood rite of The Betrayer Moon close at hand, Jackal must decide where his loyalties truly lie, and carve out his place in a world that rewards only the vicious.
Where did you get the idea for The Grey Bastards?
I was playing way too much Dungeons & Dragons — the fifth edition had just come out — and I was obsessed with painting any miniatures sculpted by Tre Manor, especially his orcs and half-orcs. At some point, while wearing a Sons Of Anarchy t-shirt with the simple SAMCRO logo, I looked down and, rather stupidly, noticed that CRO spelled backwards was ORC. So I told my wife, “My next D&D game is going to be Sons Of Anarchy with half-orcs.” And she replied, “You mean on hogs instead of…hogs?” And I said, “Yes,” like it had been my plan all along. And she said, “Why do it as a game? Write the fucking book.”
Nice. So The Grey Bastards has been described as an epic fantasy. Do you agree, or do you think there’s a different fantasy genre, or combination of them, that describes this novel better?
It’s epic in that it has all the crazy races and monsters you’d expect. But it’s relatively “low-magic” when compared to the big hitters in the defined genre. My biggest influence is Robert E. Howard, so there is more than a little sword & sorcery at work here, I think. If the protagonists were human, it would fit comfortably beneath the sword & sorcery banner, but I just had to throw in these reskinned Tolkien / Dungeons & Dragons creatures, so epic creeps in by default.
Fans of “grimdark” have also embraced the book, but that subgenre is tough to define even among its devotees, so I wouldn’t argue with folks saying it falls short of the mark there. It certainly has the amount of violence and sex typical of grimdark books, but less of the moral ambiguity.
Some have also said the half-orcs in The Grey Bastards have more in common with Arthurian knights than anti-heroes, and I can’t say that’s an unfair comparison. I’d hazard it’s an epic fantasy book with sword & sorcery sensibilities, grimdark edge, and Spaghetti Western undertones.
It’s also been said that The Grey Bastards is kind of a counterpoint to what fantasy has been since J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings came out. Do you agree with this assessment?
Yeesh. If it is a counterpoint, it’s certainly not the first. And I don’t want to be painted as a Tolkien hater. Far from it.
I’ll risk this possibly conceited theory: The Grey Bastards takes the things we love about Tolkien and gets them laid. I’m a big fan of the Professor, but Middle-earth is a chaste place. So, with Bastards, we get the halflings and the elves and the orcs, and we show them from a more grimy, raw perspective.
So then what’s the tone you’re taking with The Grey Bastards? Is it a parody, a satire, something else…?
I wrote in this blissfully ignorant bubble where I saw it as a serious book with never a thought that it would be seen as anything else. It was only when I was talking to my soon-to-be editor at Crown that I started to realize that at first glance the book might be seen as a spoof of some kind. What I attempted was a fantasy book that contained all the gritty elements I was seeing on such semi-historical / fantasy TV shows as Black Sails, Spartacus, Sons Of Anarchy…even Game Of Thrones. I just took a step farther and put the stuff that I enjoyed from the D&D table back into the mix; the so-called “classic” fantasy elements that had fallen out of fashion for the most part.
It’s also been described as a cross between The Lord Of The Rings and Sons Of Anarchy. But do you think someone needs to be a fan of both to appreciate The Grey Bastards?
Not at all. It’s become its own animal, thankfully.
Recently, a reviewer made a different comparison, using Mad Max instead of Sons Of Anarchy, which was not something I’d thought of, but was just as valid. There are winks to Lord Of The Rings and Sons Of Anarchy, for sure, but there are also little nods to Warhammer, Conan, Clint Eastwood Westerns, and a dozen other things. For those that notice them, it might be the source of an appreciative smile or even an annoyed frown depending on the reader, I guess, but it’s not meant to be a book that only certain people will enjoy. The homages mentioned are just the inspirational DNA of the story. If I wasn’t asked, most of them would likely go unnoticed and I’ve certainly forgotten several along the way. My hope and intention was that it was a book accessible to fantasy fans, as well as those that came to know fantasy through means other than books, such as TV, film, or video games.
Speaking of Tolkien and The Lord Of The Rings, what other writers or specific novels do you feel had a big influence on The Grey Bastards?
I mentioned Robert E. Howard already, but his sword & sorcery stories — Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, etc. — were a huge influence. Also, any of Guy Gavriel Kay’s historical fantasies: Lions Of Al-Rassan, Tigana, Song For Arbonne; Glen Cook’s The Black Company series; and Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy [The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, Last Argument Of Kings].
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, and video games; did any of them have an impact on The Grey Bastards? Aside from Sons Of Anarchy, of course.
I talked about the TV shows and Western films earlier, but video games as a genre had a big impact on my concept of the book. Prior to The Grey Bastards being acquired by Crown, I was a self-published writer and attended many conventions. After two years’ experience selling my books in vendor halls, I began to become infuriated by my gender’s lack of interest in books, especially among teens and twenty-somethings. Women of all ages were buying my books, even though I had not written them with a specific audience or demographic in mind, but the boys weren’t biting. It was quickly apparent that this was a trend not just with my books, but with books as a whole. The disparity was obvious and disheartening. But video games seemed to hold the younger male attention, so I set out to write a story that resonated with the trends found in that medium. Only time will tell if that actually worked…
Now, some epic fantasy novels are stand-alone stories, but a lot of them are instead parts of larger sagas. Is The Grey Bastards also part of a series?
It is most certainly part of a series.
And what prompted this decision?
In its original incarnation as a self-published novel, I wrote it to go either way. It wraps up nicely as a stand-alone, but there are threads left that could lead to other installments. At the time, I wasn’t sure what the response would be, and I had other projects going, so I didn’t want to commit to writing a series. Plus — and this is a bit of an admission — I had discovered that many readers won’t buy a book if it’s part of an unfinished series. So I wanted to have a book on my vendor table that I could point to and say, “This is a stand-alone. One and done! That will be $15, please.” But when The Grey Bastards began to do so well in Mark Lawrence’s contest, The Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off [SPFBO], it became clear that readers wanted more. And, frankly, I had more to tell. The sequel was in progress when Crown approached me, so that will be coming in March of 2019.
Cool. So what can you tell us about this series?
Two books are guaranteed at this point. My plan is for a trilogy, but I could easily play in this world for longer and do follow-up books.
Obviously, if someone is interested in this series, they should buy The Grey Bastards now, and maybe a couple more times before the sequel comes out. But should they wait until all three are available before reading The Grey Bastards?
No! Patience is not a virtue! Readers of this series should be like the half-orcs themselves. Ride out and read at a furious balls-to-the-wall pace. Go whole hog on launch day! You don’t want this story spoiled at the water cooler. I can tell you, in all honesty, there are people angry with themselves for not getting the self-pubbed version while it was available. Don’t let that happen with the first-ever Bastardshardcover book!
And will the other books be called The Blue Bastards and The Red Bastards?
He he he. There will certainly be “Bastards” in the titles of all of them if I have any say in the matter, though I’m not sure I do… You’re really close with The Blue Bastards for the sequel, though. The title I want definitely rhymes.
I asked earlier about the movies, TV shows, and video games that may have influenced The Grey Bastards. But has there been any interest in adapting The Grey Bastards into a movie, show, or game?
From what I understand there has been some “film interest,” literally my agent’s words. What that means specifically beyond requests to read the book before it is released, I don’t know. Everyone justifiably looks at such things with a healthy amount of reserved emotion because it’s such a long shot.
If it was up to you, which would you prefer it be?
If it were a dream scenario, I’d pick a TV adaptation helmed by Steven S. DeKnight, since he worked on both Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Spartacus, two of my favorite TV shows. The crew would be made up of folks with Black Sails and Justified on their resumes. Not that I’ve given it much thought, mind you. But to rein myself in, I will say I think premium channel television networks like HBO, Starz, and Showtime seem to be great places for edgier material these days.
You mentioned the crew, but who would star in The Grey Bastards TV show?
Well, being married to a working actor, I tend to like it when relatively unknown performers get cast. I would love it if a Bastards adaptation became a vehicle for an ensemble of fresh faces. But that answer takes all the fun out of the Casting Game, and I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some established actors I’d love to see bring these characters to the screen.
Being a Spartacus fan, it is probably no surprise that I had the late, great Andy Whitfield in mind when writing Jackal. Since he has passed on, I could see Zach McGowan [Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.] or Barry Sloane [Revenge] bring the necessary intensity, physicality, and sex appeal to the role. For Oats, Mustafa Shakir [Luke Cage] gets my vote. Fetching is tricky because half-orcs possess an amount of muscle rarely seen on Hollywood leading ladies, but in my head she always resembled Rosario Dawson [Sin City]. Since the book is set in a fantasy version of Spain, Antonio Banderas [The Mask Of Zorro] and Javier Bardem [Skyfall] can have their pick of their human roles far as I’m concerned. And Keanu Reeves [John Wick: Chapter 2] can take any role he wants because that’s a man-crush that will never die.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Grey Bastards, what fantasy novel would you suggest they read while waiting for The Buff Bastards, or whatever you’re calling the second book, to be released?
I’d say if they want to continue reading about main characters of the more monstrous variety they should try A Gathering Of Ravens by Scott Oden or Cold Counsel by Chris Sharp. Likely many people who enjoy The Grey Bastards will already have read Kings Of The Wyld by Nicholas Eames, which is akin in its approach to fantasy, though instead of distilling it through the lens of biker-culture, Eames uses a rock band as the foundation, to excellent results. I also highly recommend readers check out some of the amazing work coming from the self-published community. The SPFBO contest that helped The Grey Bastards gain the eye of a large publisher is a great place to discover some wonderfully talented authors.