I was casting about for an engaging, immersive — and most importantly fun — read for a business trip this week. The past 2-1/2 months or so have been pretty intense, with a move, a gratifying-but-demanding ramp up of activity at the newspaper, a demanding gig schedule and trips across the Misty Mountains tall to get Ceili reestablished at university.
I was in the mood for some fun, for a read that strums the right chords but isn’t related to a project or anything that feels like work. That can be a problem for me. I tend to put way too much weight on my choices of fiction. Pondering this in preparation for Running Iron Report podcasts, I realized that I kind of expect a novel to rock my world, always seeking that visceral hit that I got when I was young and a novel would go to my head like strong wine. Chasing the high and most often finding myself dissatisfied.
It’s why I read very little fiction these days. I really don’t read just for fun anymore. And that’s just stupid. I needed to get out of my own way and simply enjoy a yarn.
Over the weekend, I kept running across an author named Jonathan French and a book titled The Grey Bastards.
“Sons of Anarchy in Middle Earth!” or “Mad Max in Tolkien’s Middle Earth!”
Solid marketing, that, if a little heavy-handed. It succeeded in luring me down the trail. I watched a video blog by the author, where he talked about his literary influences. The man who made him want to write was… Robert E. Howard. Of course it was. All right, I like this guy.
So, I’m thinking, maybe I’ll bite…
So, Saturday night, I had a gig at the local wine bar and ran into an old friend who has carved off a niche for himself in Geek World, writing for a major science fiction/fantasy blog. He’s interviewed a bunch of luminaries, including Dean Koontz, and he’s making good money at it. Pretty cool. Anyway, he says to me:
“Hey, Penguin Random House sent a book to me to review but I just haven’t been able to get to it. I think it’s right up your alley.”
Yeah, it was The Grey Bastards. He had it in his car. He handed it over and I used the “extra” hour of “fall back” to jump into a world where brotherhoods of half-orcs known as hoofs “patrol their unforgiving country astride massive swine bred for war.” That’s right, the traditional fantasy bad guys are the “good guys,” and they ride hogs. Literally. Could be too cute by half, but damned if it ain’t just a ripping yarn, and well-wrought by a writer who is manifestly in love with his craft. (Note: It’s also foul-mouthed on a Deadwood scale, and very violent).
In the promotional materials that accompanied the review copy, French explains his affection for these outcaste ne’er-do-wells in a manner that resonates with my ongoing obsession with men of the borderlands who are caught between cultures and struggling to form their own identity and maintain their independence:
“They’re caught between humans and orcs, both culturally and geographically, so their very existence is at war with itself. The orcs view them as weak and have no use for them. The humans view them as little more than animals and shun them. That leaves them little choice but to be the hard-as-nails bunch they are. Like pirates, they’re rebellious underdogs, and it’s hard for me to not to root for those types of characters.”
BTW, the story of the book itself is a good un, too. French published it independently, entered it in a big contest, won honors and earned the attention of a major publisher. Now he’s really riding a wild hog through the badlands…
It seems to be a case of a passionate creator whose hard work put him in a position to get “lucky.” Who doesn’t love THAT story?
Anyway, I really dig where this guy French is coming from, as attested in his Acknowledgements:
This book is even more of a mutt than its main characters are. It was inspired by Sons of Anarchy, Middle-earth, spaghetti westerns and the history of Reconquista-era Spain. That makes Kurt Sutter, J.R.R. Tolkien, Sergio Leone, and El Cid the Bastards’ beloved godfathers. I hope that enthusiasts of any/all of these men will enjoy the homages and tips of the hat within this chimera of a fantasy, and that anyone who’s enjoyed riding with the Bastards will be moved to spend more time with their illustrious ancestors. Only time and readers will determine whether these inspirations formed an endearing mongrel love-child or a monstrous abomination. I certainly hope it’s the former.
So, I’m on the road (unfortunately not galloping to the Washington/Idaho line on a massive war-pig) with Jackal and Oats and Fetching. When I return, I mean to continue this strange ritual of reading for fun. HP over at Hillbilly Highways has made some very intriguing recommendations, and there’s a whole series of historical mysteries set on the Iroquoian frontier…