|Cover by Duncan Spilling|
Orbit, 10 October 2019
PB, e, 577pp
I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance copy of The True Bastards. Like its predecessor, The Gray Bastards, which I reviewed here, I actually "consumed" this book as audio. That worked very well for me before and hearing both book read aloud actually added to the experience - notably, Book 1, which follows the adventures of half-orc Jackal, is narrated (excellently) by Will Damron while this instalment features Lisa Flanagan, reflecting the fact that this time the lead, Fetch, is a female half-orc. (Jackal does feature but he is much less central to this book).
Both narrators are excellent but the gender difference makes the role of Fetching, as leader of the True Bastards half-orc hoof, clear from the outset in a way that might not be so plain in the written book. It's done from her perspective reflecting her priorities and her problems. Things have changed. Jackal, with his god-granted wonder working arm, the price set on his head by Hispartha, his debt to Zirco, the halfling priest, is gone. Instead, Fetch leads the Hoof, is responsible for keeping them alive - as well as the humans who depend on them - in the harsh environment of Ul Wundulas, without the Kiln, their fortress, destroyed by a hostile sorcerer at the end of the previous book.
Fetch is strained to her limits for most of this book, hunted by a devilish and mysterious foe somewhere out in the wastes, as well as by the haughty Cavaleros of Hispartha. She also has to face off to rival half-orc Hoofs who resent the leadership of a woman and procure the support of the Elves, who alone have knowledge Fetch realises she needs about her own past.
It is an action filled, combat filled book in which Fetch confronts difficulty after difficulty. The Lots seem determined to kill her and those around her, and she has few resources to draw on. Mere survival looks a daunting goal, with every day that she can hold together the increasingly frayed band a triumph in its self - and she begins to have a greater understanding for the achievement of the Claymaster, villain though he was.
Bawdy, strewn with profanity but relentlessly readable, this is a magnificent followup to The Grey Bastards, indeed I think possibly a better book and one I enjoyed even more because - despite the eruption of internal threats - the action is much tighter, much more focussed on Fetch and the Hoof, with fewer side-quests and less hierarchy and formality (necessarily, given the changed circumstances of the half-orcs). It's less about "What is being done to us?" (though there is some of that) than "What am I? What can I be?"
Altogether a satisfying, exciting and compulsive experience for this reader who is slightly wary of fantasy.
Content warning: As with The Grey Bastards, this is not a "nice" book. As well as the crude language of the half-orcs themselves, the potential reader should be aware that the idea of rape is very much ingrained into the background of this world. The rape of human or elven women by Orcs is a key plot point both in the creation of the half-orcs and (we learn here) the history of the elves. It's an ingrained concept and fundamental to the book (yes of course you could have fantasy without it, but you couldn't have this story about these characters and this world) so if you think this would be difficult for you, there it is.
For more about The True Bastards, see the publisher's website here.