In his epic grimdark fantasy novel The Grey Bastards, writer Jonathan French introduced us to a fantasy realm some described as being like if the orcs from The Lord Of The Rings movies formed a Sons Of Anarchy-like biker gang, albeit with mounts instead of motorcycles. With the second book in this series, The True Bastards (hardcover, Kindle) now out, I spoke to French via email about what inspired and influenced the second book in what will hopefully be a trilogy.
Photo Credit: Casey Gardner
To start, what is The True Bastards about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the previous book, The Grey Bastards?
So, more than a year has passed since the events of the first book. Some of the changes in that time won’t be a surprise to readers. Jackal is gone. Fetch is chief of the new (titular) hoof, and we continue the tale with her as our eyes now. At its core the book is about the intense burdens of leadership. Jackal spent most of The True Bastards pursuing the chief’s chair and now we see what it means to be in it, or in this case, what it means to be left with it. Let’s just say the time since the Kiln fell has not been kind to the Bastards, and Fetch, as their head, has suffered the most. But! Because the hoof is now quite vulnerable, their bond is stronger than ever. They really do live up to their new name. Still, the Lot Lands remain a brutal place to live and Hispartha isn’t happy that the orcs almost reached their kingdom last book, so the half-orc hoofs are less in favor than ever. Power plays are being made all over and the Bastards are not in a position to push back. The biggest question readers will likely be asking very early on is: “Where the hells is Oats?”
When in relation to writing The Grey Bastards did you come up with the idea for The True Bastards and how did the story evolve as you wrote it?
The Grey Bastards was always intended to be a “stand alone…with potential.” However, I think in series. A lifetime of comic books doesn’t allow my creative brains to function any other way. So, The Grey Bastards ends and wraps up, but as Obi-Wan said “From a certain point of view.” And that was intentional. I wanted to give myself a way back in, but retain solid fighting ground if I chose to make a stand for “THIS IS A STAND-ALONE NOVEL!” I didn’t touch a word of a Bastards sequel for over a year, but it was percolating in my brain. There was only one direction it could go and still be a Bastards book; meaning still following the hoof. And that was with their new chief. So it was apparent early on that it would be Fetch’s POV. Past that I didn’t have much. I’m very much a pantser/discovery writer, and even more so with these books. So, January 1, 2017, I sat down and just started writing in Fetch’s head. The problems and plot mostly came with the doing. Which is probably why it took me two years to finish…
Now, as you said, The True Bastards has Fetch, the only female half-orc rider in the Lot Lands, taking over her own hoof. A lot has happened lately, good and bad, with women, and especially women in positions of power. Did any of that stuff have an influence on The True Bastards?
It didn’t have any influence on the decision to make it her book. As I said before, that was the most organic continuation of the story. However, the current social climate did influence me along the way in terms of doubts and concerns over how the story would be received. When I was an adolescent reader (pre-Internet) there were no publicly voiced issues with men writing female protagonists. I’m certain that female readers had their private grievances with how some male authors portrayed women, but nothing that was entering the popular conscience like it is now. Nothing that could easily reach every writer even halfway paying attention and place a fear in them of perpetrating some injustice on a population justifiably out of patience. So, yes, I was wrestling with all that during those two years of writing. It caused no small amount of stress. Was I going to be scrutinized and found lacking? Was the book going to be rejected because of a female protagonist written by a male author in a particularly (and purposefully) male-dominated setting? Certainly there were people who weren’t happy with Book 1. Thankfully, most readers seem to get that the Lot Lands do reflect our own world in many ways. Ways that are often hard to face. Some people take strength in reading about struggles that hit close to home. Others are happier avoiding such things. Either is great, it’s just that one type will be my readers and one type won’t.
When we were gearing up to publish The Grey Bastards, one of my editors noted that Jackal never considers that the female orphans will be riders, despite Fetch having done it. She thought his thinking was inconsistent, but in my mind, it wasn’t at all — I knew Jackal had some blinders on. It spoke to a flaw in him. He saw Fetch as some exceptional force, not as the spearhead to a new normal. He had no ability to connect the dots: Fetch is female and joined the Bastards, therefore all women can be Bastards. To him, she was Fetch, this undeniable force of nature.
But where the note didn’t convince me to remove Jackal’s blinders, it did force me to examine mine. See at that point in the (still in progress) True Bastards, Fetch remained the only female rider. I had considered adding others as part of her time as chief, but I was worried that having other female riders would diminish Fetch’s uniqueness, would essentially make her less cool. But of course, I never hesitated to put other strong male characters in Jackal’s path for fear of diluting his presence. Why was I doing that to Fetch? Fucking blinders. And now, I can’t imagine the book without the female slopheads (Bastards in training) who are joining the hoof’s ranks. Characters like Incus, Dacia, and Ahlamra, and others still to come. All female characters that only strengthen the ensemble.
The Grey Bastards was called an epic fantasy story by some, and a grimdark fantasy tale by others. How would you describe The True Bastards?
Man, I think that debate will go on forever! Look, a definition for grimdark itself is still not entirely nailed down, so where the Bastards books fit…I dunno. Aspects of the first book certainly helped capture that readership who are awesome and voracious. The self-published edition cover art by Raymond Swanland was no small part of that. I am a Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence fan, as well as a Warhammer 40K player, so the genre was certainly on my radar. But I’ll be the first to say that the Bastards books have almost as much in common with Arthurian legend as The Black Company. It’s also fairly “low magic” so it ain’t quite epic, though the Tolkien/D&D races and monsters are there. Being a Robert E. Howard devotee, I leaned more toward Sword & Sorcery/Heroic Fantasy in the execution. In some ways, it’s more of a comic book set in a fantasy world than anything. End of the day, these books are like the main characters in them: they’re mongrels. For shits and giggles we’ll call them Heroic Grimedark, ’cause they’re more dirty than grim.
In the press materials for The True Bastards it says the book not only has “bloody action” and “clever plotting” but also “sardonic humor.” Just how funny is the book, though?
I’m a massive Terry Pratchett fan, but this wasn’t meant to be Discworld. I hope the books are funny where they are meant to be, but the humor is limited to the jokes traded by the characters. Humor is not intended in the concept or the narrative. It’s like the film Aliens. The Colonial Marines mess with each other and there are some clowns in the posse, but the movie itself isn’t a comedy.
So then who do you see as being the biggest influence on the humor in this story?
Me and my gaming friends. My Dad and his brothers. My wife and me. It’s just human interaction that ain’t afraid to be a little irreverent. I don’t get along with people who are too prudish, snobby, stuck up, or easily offended. Neither do the Bastards.
Speaking of games, did any games — or movies or TV show — have a big influence on The True Bastards?
Oh, sure. My pop culture gumbo is hearty! Spaghetti Westerns. Deadwood. Sons Of Anarchy. Justified. Black Sails. The first season of Spartacus with Andy Whitfield. Firefly / Serenity. Desperado. Conan (books and comics, mostly, but Arnie’s first film, too.) I can’t think of any specific video games but that habit has been greatly tempered as I age.
As for The True Bastards specifically, I delved into the stuff from my youth that had a female protagonist. Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley (along with Vasquez) are Fetch’s fictional godmothers in many ways. I was a massive Buffy fan, though Fetch is more like Faith on the surface. Xena and Red Sonja probably crept in there, too.
Now, in the previous interview we did about The Grey Bastards [which you can read here], I asked about your plans for this series, and you said, “Two books are guaranteed at this point. My plan is for a trilogy, but I could easily play in this world for longer and do follow-up books.” So, what is the plan right now?
I wish I could say there was a more concrete answer, but not much has changed. There is still no official deal for Book 3, but I am writing it as we speak and hope to submit it to the publisher right after the Holidays. We’ll see. I’m a slow writer. Right now, the Bastards have a cult following. They’re not massively successful, but not on life support either. The True Bastards will hopefully boost the series to a place where we’ll know how many more to do.
If the third book does happen, do you know what it will be called and when it might be out?
The file on my computer for the third book is called “Bastards 3.” That won’t be what’s on the cover, but I won’t know what to call it until I’m done. Bit of a lame answer, but there it is.
Far as a release date. Let’s say this time next year (Fall 2020) and cross our fingers together.
But there are many more stories in this world I want to tell with vastly different inspirations than what’s already come. My wife looks at me cockeyed when I tell her some of the directions I want to go. I did like what Mark Lawrence did with Road Brothers, so I’m thinking of copying that idea and doing a collection of Bastards short stories, possibly with each one featuring another of the half-orc hoofs, so we’d get a Shards story, a Skull Sowers one, a Fangs Of Our Fathers tale, etc.
You also said in that previous interview that there had been some interest in making a movie based on The Grey Bastards. Has anything come of that?
As anyone with a sci-fi/fantasy book with a major publisher will answer: There’s always interest. But that’s not near as boastful as it sounds. The reality is, Hollywood is always on the hunt, but there is a law of diminished returns. Of all the good stuff out there, only some get optioned, and fewer actually get made. We did have one interested party suggest we change the cast to human to make it more accessible / marketable. That’s never going to happen so long as I’m alive. In the post-Game Of Thrones world of entertainment, all fantasy writers think they have a shot at screen glory. But this is also the post-Warcraft movie world, so what chance to does my “orc heavy” book really stand? Not much of one.
I did get a solid boost to my morale when a popular director of a movie I actually dig emailed me personally to say he was a fan of The Grey Bastards and read it while filming in Spain, which is the spiritual setting of the Lot Lands. I can’t say who it was and there was no offer to adapt the book, but it was a cool thing to receive just out of the blue and a nice validation that some creative and professional folks are putting their eyes on my work.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Grey Bastards and The True Bastards, what fantasy novel would you suggest they read next? And to keep it interesting, and different from what you said in the previous interview, let’s keep it to fantasy novels that aren’t as dark as yours, please.
Gonna have to Google what I said before….one sec…oh, right! Ok. Well, if you want the absolute counterpoint to the Bastards books then The Books Of Babel series by Josiah Bancroft is definitely it. Those books are sophisticated in story and execution. Bancroft is, in my opinion, the best writer of my generation. I’m only a few pages into The Priory Of The Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon at the moment, so I can’t yet comment on its level of darkness, but I know I’m digging it.