Review – THE TRUE BASTARDS by Jonathan French

“A hoof rallies around power, strength, but that’s not what holds them. Their loyalty is bound to a conviction that the one leading them has the grit to stand longest in the storm, the one who will bear the hardest tasks so they don’t have to. Father was wrong about her, and about himself. This had nothing to do with lust or love or fear. This was about backing the mongrel who had the appetite to eat punishment and come back for more. Hard as living in the badlands could be, it was nothing compared to living it in the hoofmaster’s chair. Why would any want to issue challenge and take that on when there was another willing to stand between them and the flying bolts? What wouldn’t they forgive to keep that protection?”

Welcome back to the Lot Lands, and the lot (fate) of Fetching, the newly appointed leader of the newly formed, eponymous True Bastards. In book two of “The Lot Lands”, “The True Bastards”, author Jonathan French explores what leadership of the new hoof looks like under the steely and formidable direction of Fetching (Fetch for short), the first female hog rider in the Lot Lands, and first female head of any clan.

As one can imagine, in the incredible harsh – not to mention rife with misogyny – environment of the Lot Lands, being a gorgeous female chieftain, no matter how competent, can never be easy. But Fetch is more than up to the task, although it will take every bit of her determination, management abilities, smarts, courage, and battle-skills, to keep her hoof, and herself, alive.

The hoofs are essentially gangs of half-orcs. They are the product of, typically, male orcs (“thicks”) forcing themselves on human (“frails”) women. Despite the fact these half-orcs (“mongrels”) are ostracized by both human and orc parentage, they obliged to protect the humans who look down on them, and fight the orcs who see them as prey. These hoofs, for centuries, have been the protectors of humans.

But it’s a thankless job, as the humans detest their mixed-race protectors as much as their main enemies, the orcs themselves. Riding giant razorback hogs (“Barbarians”), who are as much pet and faithful companion as they are mounts, imbued with part-orc-like strength and fortitude, lustful, bloodthirsty, and cunning, the half-orcs live a brutal and often short existence in the Lot Lands, which is a place ravaged by orcs, powerful and mysterious elves, demented and terrifying centaurs, wizards, demons, and other deadly creatures.

There are added dangers and challenges facing Fetch as the leader that the previous leader, the Claymaster – whose legacy still haunts the hoof — never faced. These are hurdles besides being a female, and thus being either scorned, patronized, or lusted after by every creature in the Lot Lands. For Fetch is afflicted by a mysterious and seemingly fatal disease, and there’s a predatory super-orc killing machine is stalking the Lot Lands, as are undead laughing hyenas who strike terror into the hearts of the worst, most perilous denizens of the area.

Moreover, famine has stricken Fetch’s hoof, and the new hoof headquarters in the town of Winsome, with starving foundling mouths to feed, and the adults sacrificing their own hungry bellies to keep the young ones alive. Factions arise within the human Hisparthan army who also threaten the hoof with complete annihilation, and the wizard Crafty still lurks, ready to bring havoc at any moment. Finally, the other hoofs are becoming more rivals than allies, and though Fetch’s status as a female chief is legendary to some, its anathema to others.

Without her beloved and most loyal friends, Jackal and Oats – who she’s unsure are even alive – at her side, can Fetch overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in her way, and forge a path to survival, much less safety, for those she cares about?

“Live in the saddle. Die on the hog.”

Protagonist-wise, whereas book one of the series featured the uber-ambitious, crafty, and sometimes impetuous and misguided Jackal, this book showcases Fetch. She is a force to be reckoned with. Fetch’s indomitable spirit, her simple and abject refusal to give up, or give an inch, to those who endanger her followers, disparage her capabilities, or dismiss the relevance of her hoof, is incredible, and I cheered for her unceasingly throughout the book.

She gets beaten down continually, but keeps rising to the challenge. She’s just as bawdy, profane, lusty, and irascible as Jackal could be, and even more deadly with a weapon in her hand. She’s also astoundingly savvy as a leader, and able to persevere through the most horrible circumstances. And French puts her through A LOT in this book. The reader will be moved by her trials and tribulations – the pain she endures, both emotionally and physically. But even if she perishes, Fetch is resolved to triumph.

“I am Fetching, leader of the half-orc hoof known as the True Bastards. I need to know who you cocksuckers are and what you are doing in the fucking lots.”

The supporting cast, including villains, in this book is outstanding. Polecat, Mead, Hoodwink, Xhera, Zirko, Bermundo, Sluggard, Incas, and more, are amazing, and be warned, there will be losses in this book that will hit the reader, hard. French draws characters, few of them human, that feel real, deliciously flawed, and often extremely heroic, and thought-provoking.

The themes in the book are presented very well, but they are not for the squeamish. In an absolutely brutal world, painted in squalor and despair, extreme violence, attempted rape, physical and psychological abuse, racism and prejudice, misogyny, and other horrors await those who dare to make the Lot Lands their home. But amidst all the bleakness, is the awe-inspiring hoof loyalty to one another, the camaraderie, the obedience and fealty to the hoof leader, the noble self-sacrifice to protect a fellow hoof brother or sister, or the children under the hoof’s protection, that will stir the heart.

There is some build-up, and some great quieter moments between the characters, for the most part, this book is as action-packed from almost start to finish, and as utterly thrilling as the first one, with blistering fight scenes, blood spilled on more pages than not. The battles are tremendous, penned in top notch fashion. There’s also a pretty provocative sex scene, that includes spouting female ejaculation, that some may find gratuitous. That’s something I’ve come to expect in a French novel – indiscriminate sex and blood, that feels like a “Sons of Anarchy” episode. Some will love it, others will hate it – just be warned it’s there.

The worldbuilding feels very fresh and inventive, though very much the inspiration from Tolkien remains, though this is a perverted, twisted version of it. The diverse creatures and races, the intense soft magic system, the backstory and settings of Hispartha, Strava, the Tine Lands, and more were awesome, and really worked for me.

The grimy, foul, volatile backdrop of the Lot Lands, where almost everything there can kill you, and likely will, adds extreme levels of tension, dialed up to the highest degree, made this world truly realistic and compelling. Though not as commodious as some epic fantasies that contain immersive worldbuilding, this series packs a lot into a less pages. French does such a great job, that one will feel like they are on hog-back, riding off on patrol to protect the hoof.

A lot of this ability to immerse oneself is due to French’s outstanding prose. Sometimes utterly crass, completely irreverent, it’s also extremely witty, often beautiful, and very poignant. There is plenty of black humour, cuss words, and nihilism. This book and series won’t appeal to every reader, especially if you’re not a fan of the potty-mouth kind of laughs and vulgarity of every form. But French also writes with a cerebral grace, depth, and efficiency that will appeal to many a reader. He’s truly a brilliant author.

Personally, I’m hooked on French’s writing. The esprit de corps of the hoof, the raunchy hilarity, the fabulous action, great storytelling and prose, vibrant worldbuilding, and marvellous characterization, especially seeing Fetch hold the hoof together often by her sheer strength of will, made this a great read.

I’m fully invested in this series, and looking forward to the finale! Bring on “The Free Bastards”! Five stars for “The True Bastards”!

Check Out Our Reviews for The Lot Lands Series

Review – The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French

Review – The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French

Review – The Free Bastards by Jonathan French

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