Review of The Grey Bastards (The Lot Lands #1), by Jonathan French

I received a copy of The Grey Bastards, by Jonathan French, from First to Read.

Description from Goodreads:
Jackal is proud to be a Grey Bastard, member of a sworn brotherhood of half-orcs. Unloved and unwanted in civilized society, the Bastards eke out a hard life in the desolate no-man’s-land called the Lots, protecting frail and noble human civilization from invading bands of vicious full-blooded orcs.

But as Jackal is soon to learn, his pride may be misplaced. Because a dark secret lies at the heart of the Bastards’ existence – one that reveals a horrifying truth behind humanity’s tenuous peace with the orcs, and exposes a grave danger on the horizon.

On the heels of the ultimate betrayal, Jackal must scramble to stop a devastating invasion – even as he wonders where his true loyalties lie.

Review:
This book has a really interesting germ of an idea, great mechanical writing and likable characters. But I’d not recommend it to anyone and I would suggest women run for the hills, rather than read it. My problem isn’t just the distinct lack of women with agency in the book. After all, epic fantasy has had a dearth of women since forever. (With one token and problematic exception, which I’ll address, every single one of them is a whore, a “bedwarmer,” or a rape victim. We’re explicitly told women can’t stay at The Kiln unless they’re bedwarmers. There are NO other options presented for women.)

It’s not even the fact that I don’t think the word woman is used even once in the book. Every time a female is referred to she is a gash, a slash, cunny, cunt, pussy, coin purse, quims, slit, (and those are just the ones I remember) even in distinctly nonsexual context. Women are denied their humanity from the first page to the last. (And yes, I get that they’re not all human, but you take my point.)

Additionally, rape is an everyday reality of the book. Every half-orc, the whole race the book is about, is the get of orcs raping human woman. No woman is ever shown to have an opinion on who has sex with her and it’s understood that half-orcs rape on a pretty regular basis. Even the hero has a rather protracted rape fantasy about a helpless elf-girl (who’s already been repeatedly raped by a group of 7ft orcs, a sludge djinn and at least one soldier/slaver, though I’d assume he shared with his men too) and thinks, “This is the sort of man The Grey Bastards need, one who takes what he wants.” He doesn’t get around to doing it, but he also isn’t remorseless at his thoughts.

It’s all this plus the fact that the males constantly make dick jokes and tease each other about sex (usually at the expense of the woman involved), AND how often it’s dropped into conversation: “It’s not like we’ll be sitting there eating grapes and letting virgins suck our cocks.” Is a paraphrased example (since I didn’t mark it) of how one character describes whether their group will achieve something. Virgins sucking cocks isn’t necessary to make the point.

Even worse, the single token exception to the place of women is Fetching. So named because women are  only good for two things, “fucking and fetching,” (direct quote). She’s a warrior, sure, but she’s constantly reminded by the leader and his followers that she wasn’t wanted and verbally harrassed with things like, “If you’re tounge’s not around my cock, I have no use for it.” (This when she asked a question.) This was in addition to the good-natured sexual teasing of her friends that might have been funny if it didn’t feel so much like just more of the same, when considered with everything else. Worse, she had to pretend to be a lesbian to fill this role. She had to metaphorically remove herself from the ranks of women to be allowed to be anything but a walking pussy (or ass, apparently whores love it up the ass). Because if she was sexually available to anyone, she’d apparently have to be available to everyone. So the logic apparently goes. Thus, she had to be defrocked of male-female sexuality entirely to be anything but a whore (by any name).

This isn’t a romance. It’s not a book about lust or sex. In fact, all references to sex could be removed without changing the plot a single iota. But it is so pervasive in the book that it takes over. And as a female reader, who is given no place in the book, no one to relate to, it started to feel like a slap in the face. Would I be a gash, you think, or a coin purse? Maybe I’d be lucky enough to be chosen as someone’s bedwarmer, the most I could aspire to. Because apparently I couldn’t EVER be anything else.

And sure an author can construct their world anyway they like, it’s artistic and creative license. But writing a world in which women are wholly subjugated and reduced to nothing but their sex (and it belonging to men), isn’t creative or imaginative. It’s trite and boring. It’s been done and done and done. It’s frankly either lazy or that author’s juvenile wank fodder.

The sad thing is that if a lot of it had been tempered, such that I didn’t almost feel freaking attacked as a female reader, I’d have loved the crude humor and rough language. I liked the Grey Bastards. I liked the political intrigue. I liked the plot. Hell, if it had all the sexual innuendo it has, but women weren’t presented as existing solely as holes to be fucked but as equal participants, I’d still have probably loved it. But call me a snowflake, I (the universal I of womanhood) don’t want to be the butt of ever single joke, probably rape jokes at that. It totally ruined an otherwise awesome fantasy.

As an aside, I just love how many reviews refer to the book as “gritty and realistic.” Can we cue appellations from men who hold the same mindset of women as sexual objects as the author? Unless of course they mean the marauding centaurs or war-hog riding half-orcs as realistic.

All in all, I don’t recommend this book to anyone. I hate to say it, but it’s true. And I especially don’t recommend it to women. I honestly think it takes its sexist streak so far as to be harmful.

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