Book Review: The True Bastards by Jonathan French

true bastardsFormat: hard cover, first edition, 2019

Pages:  579

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.”

 

My Thoughts

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…

Book Review: The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French

grey bastards

Format:  first hard cover edition, 2018

Pages:  421

Reading Time:  about 10.5 hours

One sentence synopsis: Jackal and his “Hoof” (gang) of half-orcs encounter challenges both natural and supernatural, which threaten not only the Hoof and the wilds, but also the entire kingdom of Hispartha.

 

I first learned about The Grey Bastards when it won the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) in 2016, beating out titles such as The Path of Flames and Paternus to claim the top spot. To win such a title, a book would have to be very good, but considering the subject matter, I wasn’t sure if it was something I’d like. I became very intrigued, however, when it was released in hard cover earlier this year. Although I was still unsure about it, I picked up a copy and decided to squeeze it in to the queue once I had met my reading goal. So my review is below, and contains a few spoilers, which I will point out. First, though, some other reviews around the web…

 

James Tivendale of Fantasy Book Review states: “The camaraderie and banter of the Bastards’ is top quality throughout and reminiscent of the crews in Malazan or The First Law. Orcs are often presented in fantasy as brainless brutes but with half human emotions thrown into the equation as presented here they often extremely likable and relatable. The majority of the characters are fully fleshed out and each have detailed motives and opinions…The worldbuilding is excellent throughout with the environments and its inhabitants brimming with details and intricacies. Although The Grey Bastards includes a fair amount of fantasy tropes including wizards, elves, orcs, halflings – it is crafted in such a way that combined everything feels new, fresh, exciting and original. There are many different nations, races, and factions each with their own religions, hierarchies, and histories which are all well-crafted, however, I still believe we’ve only just touched the surface of what The Lot Lands trilogy has to offer…This novel is filthy, dirty, and gritty but in the best possible way. It is dark fantasy done right. The Grey Bastards is extremely adult in nature featuring certain moments of vulgarity and also the swearing count is high from the very first page. There are a plethora of standout scenes dotted throughout this sharp brilliant debut. Ambushes, swamp-battles, and an assault made by beasts straight out of mythology are but a handful of occasions that spring to mind. There are many exquisite and dramatic confrontations but a scene that stood out the most to me was a conflict battled with wits and words rather than javelins and swords. The character dialogue throughout is unbelievably tight, not just for a debut novel but for any top fantasy novel. In The Grey Bastards, just when I thought I knew what was going to happen next I was blindsided and then the chaos, twists, drama, and unpredictability gave me an Orc-powered punch to the gut! French has composed a stunning opening chapter to his trilogy that is well worthy of the hype that has been garnering.

Bill Capossere at Fantasy Literature writes: “It’s foul-mouthed, has a good amount of graphic language…sex, and violence, and much of that is aimed in ugly fashion at women…It was a close call as to whether it was a book for me and honestly, I’m not sure I would have finished it had it not been a review copy. Now, I don’t want to imply the author is espousing these views, and there’s an argument to be made that the author is highlighting the negative aspects of a culture. Plus, there are hints that things are changing. But I do think the execution muddies how these views are meant to be seen, and that is problematic. There’s a lot to like in French’s novel if you can look past all that, but I had great difficulty in responding positively at many points; it often took me out of the reading experience, and made me frequently wonder if it was all truly necessary…First and foremost, the characters are a lot of fun. Jackal, as the main character, is mostly likable and has an engaging personality and voice. Even better, and one of my favorite aspects of The Grey Bastards, is how he’s presented as someone who thinks he has all the right answers and motives. And in most novels, that’s where the characterization would end. But time and again Jackal is thrown for a loop (as is the reader), and his confident plotting thrown awry by learning that the world is more complex than his relatively short life experience has prepared him for…The worldbuilding is slowly revealed as The Grey Bastards goes on, and it’s still not fully laid out by the end; it’s more than a little thin, but clearly there’s a second book coming and one assumes we’ll learn more about it. The exposition can be clunky at times, and though the war/division of land at least explains why the regions are homogenous, I admit I’m a little tired of the one-race/one land set up and am ready for some fantasy that presents lands as more cosmopolitan…Plot-wise the action is vibrant, fast, bloody, and deftly handled in terms of logistics. The entire book is also nicely paced and shows good balance and smooth transitions as it moves between fight scenes, chase scenes, political arguments, and more intimate one-on-one conversations. A few cliché moments pop up, as do some a few unexpected twists to balance them out. Dialogue is quite well done for the most part, save the aforementioned language, misogynistic, homophobic “bro talk” moments.

Finally, Writer Dan at Elitist Book Reviews opines: “The world-building French has done here is pretty good, despite employing the fairly cliched races of orcs, centaurs, halflings, and elves. The story begins fairly tight, focusing solely on the half-orc hoof and small bands of human soldiers that occasionally come into the badlands called the Lot. This is the world of the hoof, and so little more matters. The humans don’t want them around, the orcs are too violent to abide, and any time a half-orc is sired the child is given to the hoof to raise. As all of the half-orcs are sterile, this is the only way to grow their numbers, and this fact lends to an overabundance of sexual freedom that has obviously defined their lives. It is present in every aspect of their life; from action, to thought, to speech and definitely humor. As such, women are debased as objects and left to raise what children are left with them, and the males play the strong and powerful…From a plotting standpoint, French also did a marvelous job. Right from the get-go, there is conflict and consequence and decision and action. One piece moves us to the next and the next, never lagging in its pacing or level of tension. Several times I was surprised by what happened, and the consequences of those happenings…There was one point though that really held the story back for me. About halfway through the book, I realized that it had lost some steam, but the story was still moving along at a great clip, so it took me a while to figure out what might be going wrong. Eventually, I realized that I was losing my excitement for the story because of how little characterization there was of the main character, Jackal. Once I realized that, I started looking for those pieces that define character for me, and I found they were almost completely absent. This was something else that really surprised me because I had so enjoyed the beginning of the book and literally ALL of the other characters. But I realized at that point that I really didn’t know Jackal much at all and he should really be the character that I know the best. I mean, I knew that he wanted to be chief of the hoof, but other than that he was mostly a blank. So, I was losing that drive to read more of the story because I didn’t understand his motivations: why he’s doing the things he’s doing, or why he’s making the choices he’s making.

 

All the bloggers above make excellent points…I can’t say I really disagree with any of it. I guess I’m done here.

Just kidding.

Yes, the story is trope-ridden, and yes it is full of cursing, homosexual jokes, misogynist material, and a few sex scenes. However, it also has some positive things going for it. The worldbuilding is superb. French has captured the contrasts in the badlands perfectly…from territorial battles to banding together against a common foe, from humans that seem to be one thing but are actually different, from dangerous elves on one side to dangerous orcs on the other. Now imagine all that, in a setting that is a cross between a medieval village and the old west of America. French has put a lot of thought into how the half-orcs would eek out a living in a land with limited resources – what kind of ideals would drive the Hoof, what the roles of everyone would be, and the constant threat they live under that requires a violent response. It’s really quite brilliant.

On the other hand, I didn’t quite appreciate the characters quite as much as my fellow bloggers did. Most are a little too one-dimensional, although there are some standouts like the wizard Crafty and the mysterious Hoodwink. Jackal himself is likable, and his flaws of ignorance and overconfidence, as Bill states above, make for great characterization…things often don’t go the way Jackal plans them, and he discovers that he doesn’t know half of what he thinks he knows. However, Writer Dan is spot on when he says that we don’t always know why Jackal does something – he just does it, and there’s not enough insight into his thinking.

The plot takes some interesting twists and turns, often in directions I wasn’t expecting. There were at least a few times when I had no idea where the story was headed, but even seemingly random events all tie together nicely by the end. The pace is fairly brisk, never really bogging down, as scenes which are not driven by action either have crisp dialog, or tension as events build up, especially at “the table”, which almost reminds me of the Knights of the Round Table, if the knights were ax-throwing half-orcs that rode giant boars instead of horses. There are a few deaths at the end of the story, and two of those were lacking a bit in emotion (maybe that’s by design), but the third had a big impact on me and made me a little sad.

As Bill infers, at times the swearing and sexual innuendos seem a bit – I don’t want to use the word gratuitous here, perhaps overused is more appropriate – and so one of the same things that makes the story fairly unique also holds it back a little, as it is occasionally jarring and causes the reader to focus on that aspect instead of the story itself. As to the misogynist material, I’m a bit conflicted. On one hand you don’t want to pretend that those types of things don’t happen, as they surely did in the American west near the end of the 19th century or in medieval times. It feels like something that would truly be present in a half-orc society. On the other hand, that doesn’t make it a pleasant reading experience, and a writer treading that slippery slope can really struggle with it and risk alienating readers, as my review of Glen Cook’s Port of Shadows can attest to. Ultimately I have to say that while it’s not a good choice for the author to make, here French has defined it as part of his half-orc society – it is a cultural norm. In this manner, it’s still possible for the story to overcome such unpopular views.

And to a large degree, The Grey Bastards does just that – the good outweighs the bad enough to make it a good read. Between the unpredictable path of the plot, to the fine worldbuilding and the fast pace, The Grey Bastards has a lot to offer. I never felt like I wanted to put the book down and walk away, and I very much enjoyed many aspects of the story, in spite of the negatives. I’ll definitely spring for a sequel if French decides to write one.