Fiction Reviews

The True Bastards

(2019) Jonathan French, Orbit, £9.99, pbk, 581pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51166-5


You may have noticed a recent trend of Fantasy books with a “sweary” title – you know, the ones that go “Couldn’t give a sh*t” or “The (insert swearword here)”.

Well, here is another one.

Putting my cards on the table, I must admit that the sweary title is a pet hate of mine. To my mind, it’s not big and it’s not clever, something that to me feels like a marketing ploy rather than something that actually does the tale any credit.

And, being honest, it’s what put me off these books so far. I don’t think I’m particularly prudish – I love Joe Abercrombie’s version of filthy fantasy, for example, which is as curse-ridden as this book – but most of all for it to work for me it has to have a purpose. All too often, some of these more recent books seem to profane for little more reason than it grabs attention and sells books.

I know I should abandon all preconceptions at the door – and usually do. But this one is a personal annoyance. Nevertheless, I did try not to let it sway my opinion of the book.

To be fair, this one has some merit in that The Grey Bastards, the first book in the series, won the second SPFBO (Self Published Fantasy Book Blog-Off) Award set up by author Mark Lawrence: it was very popular.

The books in the series are focussed on The True Bastards, who are a mercenary gang of half-orcs who roam the Lot Lands in search of work. This is deliberately a story from the bad-guys point of view – or is it that Orcs have had an unfairly- bad reputation in the past? You can forget all of your high-falooting values of elves and fairies that you might have got from reading Lord of the Rings – this is deliberately a tale of the grunt-workers, the guns-for-hire, the forgotten yet generally necessary creatures that get a difficult job done.

Here we are tackling the second in the series, and as a result, things have happened in the first book that have a bearing on events here. This second book mainly focusses on Fetching, who was once the only female rider in the Lot Lands. Now she is the leader of her own hoof, a band of loyal half-orcs sworn to her command. But in the year since she took power, the True Bastards have struggled to survive.

And there is much here that continues to test our characters. Not only does Fetching have to deal with the burdens of leadership, she battles desperately to also stave off famine, desertion and the scorn of the other half-orc chieftains, even as orcs and humans alike threaten the Lots’ very existence. As if that wasn’t bad enough, an old enemy then finds a way to strike at her from beyond the grave – you thought that they were dead in the first book(?) - and suddenly only one faint hope for salvation remains.

With this one then, expect lots of sweary expletives and gory ultra-violence throughout. The characterisation has a little more depth than many of the similar books to this, but not enough to slow down the main plot. Despite my not having read the first book, it was easy enough to pick up on what has gone before. Given the option, though, I would probably suggest that you read the first book first.

This might help the issue that I had in that I found that I cared little for the characters, especially when the author has clearly tried so hard to persuade me. There was not much introspection here, although admittedly there was some, in that the book points out how hard done to these characters are. The amount of difficulty that the characters have to cope with is at times rather too much, although the main protagonists use this to good effect in that they revel in the point that they are outsiders, shunned by many and perhaps unfairly so. Despite this, at times this one was hard-going for me. And yes, there’s an ending that will no doubt lead to the third book.

Nevertheless, in summary, this is a good read for readers who know what to expect. Is it subtle? No, but that may be its point. Is it very violent? Yes – and again, that may be the point. Does the swearing and violence serve a purpose? Hmm. Would I read more in this series? Although I enjoyed elements of it, my overall feeling at the end was that the plot was a little forced, the determination to be bad and sweary a little too determined, to the point where I started to notice the mechanics of the story rather than just enjoy the journey. As a result, this is where I stop, I think.  But, for those readers wishing to be entertained by coarse language and a violent story, this may be for you.

(But I did get around that stupid sweary title… using expletives.)

Mark Yon

See also Arthur's take on The True Bastards.


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