Format: hard cover, first edition, 2019
Reading Time: about 14.5 hours
One Sentence Synopsis: While Jackal leaves the Hoof to chase down the wizard Crafty, Fetching, the new chief, must contend with illness, challenges to her leadership, and a frightening new enemy that may destroy everything she values.
The Grey Bastards was one of my favorite reads from 2019, winning a couple of Hippogriff Awards. Would The True Bastards, a direct sequel, have the same impact on me? Read on to find out, but beware of spoilers both for this book and its predecessor. But, first, some guest reviews…
Nils Shukla of The Fantasy Hive says: “I’ll start by mentioning what I love most about this series, which would definitely have to be the world building. The Lot Lands is not exactly what you would call a picturesque place to live, and this second novel further establishes that fact. The Lot’s brutal, scorching terrain is filled with blood thirsty centaurs, volatile elves, orcs, ravenous hyenas, and human military forces that believe their rule is supreme…Now, if I’m being honest, I didn’t think I would enjoy The True Bastards quite as much as I did with The Grey Bastards. I wasn’t overly keen on Fetch in the first book, and knowing that she would be the main character in the sequel felt kind of disappointing. I WAS WRONG! Fetch was such a superb character. She showed an abundance of strength, courage, and she had such a fiery attitude – every time she was humiliated or degraded, especially by males, it truly was a pleasure to see her put them in their place…One of my favourite scenes was when the Bastards were playing games with the children from their orphanage in a lake. The children were reluctant to wash, as children are, and so to entice them into the water they made a sport of it. This scene just perfectly cut through all the grimness of the book, and showed such a beautiful light-hearted side to each one of them. I’m just going to briefly mention here that much in the style of The Grey Bastards, the levels of profanity, sexual references – including of genitalia – and crude behaviour are just as high in this book…So, what else made this book a remarkable read? Well, that resides in the action sequences. I previously found with the first book that there was a bit too much politics introduced, and at times I felt this became overly complex and confusing. In the True Bastards, French aptly delivers a balance between the politics, which is still central to the plot but brought more clarity, and in between those sections we also get exceptional combat scenes.”
Mogsy of The BiblioSanctum states: “The True Bastards feels slightly different in tone and style from the first book, which roughly follows a quest narrative complete with magical mysteries to discover and obstacles to overcome. The Grey Bastards was not a light story by any means, but still, it did offer a fair bit of adventure. This sequel, in contrast, is feels vastly more oppressive, serious, and bleak. Poor Fetch can’t seem to catch a break! For the entirely of this novel, she’s besieged with problems on all sides and her troubles never let up. In addition, this volume feels like a more personal character study, delving into the history and background of our protagonist. Expanding upon the world-building and adding to our understanding of half-orc society, French reveals a lot more about the magic and lore of the world that we did not know before. Some of it is very complex, and at times disturbing. Speaking of which, the author holds nothing back when it comes to portraying the brutality and grimness of life in the Lot Lands. Expect a lot of explicit language and unrestrained violence and death, though if you’ve read the first book, none of this should be a surprise. With Fetch at the helm, there’s also a shift in the types of issues the story deals with, including vulgar names and crude comments aimed at our protagonist because of her sex. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: this isn’t a series for the fainthearted. But on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing this new adventure from Fetch’s point of view. She’s a lot more prudent than Jackal, which makes her lack a lot of his spontaneity as well as a certain fun spark. However, this reflects what I love best about these books—the fact that each half-orc character possesses a special and unique personality. Like Jackal, Fetch is a product of her own background and individual experiences, and they’ve shaped the way she views the world and deals with challenges thrown her way. There’s more darkness in her, but that’s okay; her tale is another piece of the puzzle that help us understand the life and ways of the Lot Lands.”
Mihir Wanchoo of Fantasy Book Critic explains: “So let’s begin with what this book is not, primarily this book is a very different title to The Grey Bastards. That book was an action packed monster, this one is its more contemplative cousin who’s equally deadly but simmers slowly. Fetching as a narrator is very starkly different to Jackal, where Jackal was attack first and ask questions later, Fetching is equally effective at defense and offense. She is also an able leader whose skills get stretched to their limits with all the troubles the True Bastards face. The action in this series is more personalized as we get lots on one on one sequences as well as some mass scenes. The book however is equally filthy, coarse and gory as was its predecessor. It’s better than predecessor in its overall plot as we get more details about certain specific events from the first book as well as the magic system gets more insight. There’s some huge potential revelations that left me hugely excited for what come in the future. Going on to the characterization, with more than 500 pages and just one POV character, the author has to really nail down the tone. Jonathan French goes above and beyond in presenting Fetching as more complex character than Jackal was and having a lot more stress placed on her shoulders due to her gender, her birth as well events beyond her control. But face them with aplomb, she does, while being as foulmouthed, tough and brilliant as she’s shown to be in the first book. Jonathan’s decision to shift the focus really pays off as we get to see the bastards truly become a hoof through hellfire (mostly figuratively and some cases literally)…With regards to the drawbacks, the book’s place is also sluggish for the first nearly 40-50% as the author lays down a lot of tracks for the book’s plot arc as well as the series arc. While I didn’t mind it that much, there will be those who might not enjoy this slow pace at all. The story revelations that come, create more questions and there are no easy answers to be found.”
The biggest difference between The Grey Bastards and The True Bastards is of course the main character, Fetching. Jonathan French took a big risk in switching the viewpoint away from Jackal. Fortunately, the risk pays off in spades. Fetch, half-elf and half-orc, not only has to contend with all of the troubles and evils that plague the Lot Lands, but she also has to be fast, stronger, and smarter to overcome the prejudice of a male-dominated society. French gives her a different enough voice so that the reader isn’t simply following a female version of Jackal. She also has to battle an internal sickness that happened in the previous book and threatens to make her weak and undermine her position. However she doesn’t do all this just to hold power…she does it because she cares about the Lot Lands and her Hoof dearly. She’s really a brilliant character and I’m curious to see what happens in the next book: will the viewpoint character remain Fetch, return to Jackal, or move to another character entirely?
The supporting characters are just as strong as in the first book. The silent and stoic Hoodwink remains perhaps my favorite. Other favorites like Mead and Polecat return, while new ones enter like Dumb Door, Sluggard and Xhreka. In true Lot Lands fashion, characters are going to fall along the way. You will feel sadness and your heart will ache. Your eyes might even water a little. You have been warned.
Other races have been fleshed out as well. The Centaurs, those evil creatures of the Blood Moon rampages, may be more than they appear. And the Tines play a very prominent role, with a good portion of the setting taking place in their territory. There is definitely a native American/Asian mix to them – at least that is the vibe that I got.
The villains have been ramped up too. the dread wizard Crafty is still causing havoc from wherever he is hiding. The men of Hispartha seem more evil and corrupt than ever. And then there’s the big albino orc and his frightening pack of wolves that is killing everything in the Lots. There are other Hoofs that challenge Fetch, and there’s even the appearance of a cyclops!
The plot is fast-paced, full of tension and action. While some claim that The Grey Bastards had more fast-paced action and that The True Bastards is more of a slow burn, I couldn’t honestly tell you as I didn’t notice enough of a difference between the to. And even if it were true, the way French maintains tension makes the story no less compelling. As I mentioned above, Fetch has to deal with challenges, fight off sickness, and contend with the threat of the albino orc. I was enthralled throughout the story. My only complaint is a bit of a deus ex machina that shows up at the perfect time. Other than that I thought it was some pretty flawless storytelling.
As before, the Lot Lands is no place for the weak. You will find swearing, violence and gore, reference to male and female sex organs, rape, and an explicit sex scene. I didn’t find it offensive but your mileage may vary. If you got through The Grey Bastards fine, you’ll have no trouble here. There is one lighter scene that Nils mentions above featuring a water game with children…though it feels a bit out of place, it is also appreciated as a break from the dark violence of the rest of the book, and gives some depth to the characters that the reader might not have considered otherwise.
In conclusion, French has written an impressive sequel to The Grey Bastards. Dark, grim, and compelling, The True Bastards, if it ends up being a middle book in a set of three, does not suffer from middle book syndrome at all. The new settings, villains and characters are great, the new settings are enjoyable (especially the arena!) and the ending is perfect, opening the door for a third book. The True Bastards is one of my top reads of the year, and will definitely claim some Hippogriff Awards…