|Design by Duncan Spilling|
Orbit, 30 September 2021
Available as: PB, 543pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Free Bastards to consider for review.
The Free Bastards brings to a pause the sequence that began with The Grey Bastards and continued in The True Bastards. I say a pause, not a conclusion, because French states, in his Acknowledgements, that he would like to ride the Lots again some day. And clearly, there is much remaining to be worked out in story terms which would allow that.
Nevertheless, we have some closure here, seeing how the war turned out that began when the Bastards rose up against the tyranny of Hispartha; understanding Crafty and his motivations (perhaps...?) and witnessing several well loved characters get some ease from their tribulations (and others die cruelly and unfairly: these are the Lots, after all).
I think I like this approach to a fantasy sequence. All too often an author, bent on tying up EVERYTHING, produces for their third volume an indigestible pottage of plot. We've also seen this with certain film franchises (mentioning no names but I know who I'm looking at). In contrast, the Free Bastards sets itself more modest goals, and meets them with aplomb.
The story is seen through the eye of Oats, closest friend of Jackal and Fetching, who the first and second books respectively followed. It some respects it's a more worm's eye view of the world than in them - both Jackal and Fetching have gained, or discovered they had, unnatural degrees of power or talent (though, as we see in this book, nothing that makes them invincible or always right). Oats, in contrast, is still rather ordinary - for values of ordinary that encompass a Thrice, a three-quarters Orc - and my, how he suffers here as a result. The Lot Lands trilogy has not previously, and The Free Bastards does not now, spare us the messy aftermath of conflict and both physical and mental wounds abound here. The downside of the raw, bloody conflict that's described in minute detail is the scars and suffering that follow. Oats becomes, bluntly, battle-sick and part of his struggle in this book is to keep on keeping on through it all, especially when the odds seem well-nigh impossible. That's a struggle that in the end is down to him, one which can't be helped by magic, artefacts or relics of old or even the loyalty of his mighty steed, Ugfuck.
And the way that struggle plays out - its relationship to ideas of loyalty, friendship and rivalry as well as to wider plot threads involving the Lots, the elves, Orcs and Halflings - is at the heart of this book. It couldn't, in the end, be anyone else's story other than Oats', and the way it ends is magnificent. I think that French's decision to tell each of these books wholly from the perspective of a different character - rather than having one main viewpoint, or chopping up the three stories among different protagonists - really pays off here, allowing undiluted focus on the three individuals. It was perhaps a high risk device, but really succeeds by allowing each of the three the necessary emotional depth and space to tell their own stories.
It also, of course, leaves a lot unspoken, unsaid, as we know that each of the three was having adventures in the background, as it were, of each others' books, adventures we only know the bare bones of. I feel knowing that will add even more depth and resonance if - when - French returns to Ul Wundulas.
I'll be waiting for that day, ready to saddle up again and 'Live in the saddle; Die on the hog'.
I read the paperback of The Free Bastards but I also enjoyed much of the book as audio, again I'd strongly recommend Will Damon's narration and mastery of a range of voices which together with the great narrative drive of this story and its intimate and personal moments, makes it a superb experience to listen to.
For more information about The Free Bastards, see the publisher's website here.