(2019) Jonathan French, Orbit, £9.99, pbk, ISBN 978-0-356-51166-5 1-787-58403-7
A welcome sequel to French’s half Orc fantasy saga The Grey Bastards (2018).
The situation looks dire for Fetching (Fetch), the new leader of the Bastards. With previous commander, Jackal, absent on a quest of his own, Fetch struggles to rebuild the Kiln Fortress, the central defence for the half-orcs, destroyed in the previous book. A year on, the repairs are getting nowhere. The magical near volcanic green fires still burning under the rubble make salvage and reconstruction painfully slow. Worse, Fetch is slowly being poisoned by slime contamination she received in the final battle against the Claymaster.
Now, various enemies are closing in, sensing Jackal’s absence and naively doubting Fetch’s own leadership skills. Deadly spectral hyenas attack the colony, as does a zombified resurrected dead hog (The Bastards ride giant pigs instead of horses). Added to that, the Cavalleros, a mercenary group of human French Foreign Legion-like soldiers, have discovered gun-powder and decide to use captured half-orcs, including Fetch, for target practice.
Fetch comes to two terrible conclusions: 1/. The Kiln is no longer capable of defending the community; 2/. She herself is the primary target for the various assaults, and so she must lead her people in search of a new home, even at risk of dividing their loyalties towards herself.
Fetch is a wonderful character, even in the first book, but now really coming into her own. The various attacks seem episodic and often unconnected but French centres on the toll it takes on Fetch as a hero genuinely pushed to the limit of her endurance and abilities and forced into dangerous unpopular decisions.
The half-orcs are the illegitimate offspring of orcs and humans and occasionally the elves, protecting a town that centres on both a brothel and the orphanage for the children produced through the couplings there.
Though normally portrayed as mindless monsters, even in Tolkien, these orcs and half-orcs, though they swear like commandoes in any army, are remarkably caring and tender to one another, often more humane than the actual human characters. In one scene, when a trainee Ba astard (known affectionately as slopheads) is emasculated and scalped in a viscous attack by full-orcs, he laments to Fetch that he will no longer get to spend a night feeling a woman’s touch. Fetch promptly disrobes to lie silently with him in her arms for the night.
Various characters from the first book reappear in this one, often found by Fetch while having been reduced to sorry pathetic versions of their former selves until rediscovered by Fetch and getting their mojo back. Oats for example, her own step-brother, a kind of Little John (of Robin Hood fame) giant strongman, unfairly cast into exile in the first book, is found cage-fighting a cyclops in a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome environment. He is back to his old self within pages.
Various wizards, elves, monsters, centaurs and humans interact with, aid, hinder, and sometimes betray their way through the pages with the inhospitable cruel desert itself described so vividly you’ll feel a need to drink water as you read this. Fetching is incredibly human, despite her tusks. She is one of the finest, most complex and credible female characters in all fantasy fiction.
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