“The Ten Thousand” lays a new cornerstone for the vastly under-appreciated fantasyThis review is originally available at Realms of Speculative Fiction
“The Ten Thousand” lays a new cornerstone for the vastly under-appreciated fantasy author Paul Kearney that marks his rebirth as a writer under the wing of a new publisher, Solaris. They made a sweet deal with Kearney not only to publish his forthcoming standalone novel “The Ten Thousand” -- release date: Aug 26 in US and Sep 1 in UK -- and to re-release his outstanding “Monarchies of God” series encompassed within two hefty omnibuses later this year (Kearney is currently revising the ending of the last book in the series, which he feels that it was rushed and could be done better), but also endorse his decision to complete the “Sea Beggars” trilogy which was unceremoniously dropped by Bantam after the second book because of the low sales. The sole Kearney's novel I’ve read prior to “The Ten Thousand” is “The Mark of Ran” (review) and suffice to say that I had high expectations for this novel which were for the most part met or even exceeded, but for the minor quibbles I had.
Ten thousand elite mercenaries of a legendary race known as the Macht, renowned for its savage, fearless, but utterly disciplined heavy spearmen, are hired by the Assurian Empire’s prince, who covets his brother’s prestigious throne. From the moment the Macht host crosses the narrow sea separating their homeland from the Empire a new legend begins to shape itself with each step they take further into the heart of the lustrous Empire.
Before continuing with the review I should warn you that the blurb on the back cover contains a nasty spoiler you would do best to avoid, if the final draft of the text intended for the mass print remains unchanged.
The main plot line deals with the army of Macht sellswords (sellspears?) fighting for their lives in someone else’s war and their employer’s motives are beyond their caring. All this is not groundbreakingly original, but what counts here is the manner how Kearney manages to pull it through. If I’d pit this novel against, let’s say, the graphic novel/movie “300” -- as it has relatively comparable storyline and themes, and is also based on one of the ancient Greek legends (legend of the Ten Thousand) -- then I’d have to admit that I find “The Ten Thousand” vastly superior in every aspect, except where the CGI animation, en masse popularity and end-profits are concerned.
The subplots evolve around the fates of several individual soldiers of the Macht and a few other side characters: the young conscripts Gasca and Rictus of Isca, centurion Jason of Ferai, Vorus – the renegade general of the Assurian Empire, and Tyrin, the lowborn Kufr concubine of the upstart prince. But the collective is always at the forefront of attention. Kearney succeeds at making you care for what happens to the Macht army by representing it through the eyes of a few carefully selected individuals; and this achievement makes the novel an assured page-turner. The suspense is held from the beginning until the end, even though I had some problems accepting the fact that an army of ten thousand elite spearmen (no matter how skilled, disciplined or desperate) manages to repel a host at least five times its size, with no fortifications or supporting cavalry.
Kearney’s prose is as lean as a wolf and reflects the utilitarian nature of his characters. At first I had some difficulties with remembering all the exotic names and unfamiliar terminology, but then, you have a perfectly handy glossary at the end of the novel explaining all the essential words. But no matter how low-key the writing style is, deep insights into the nature of men (and also otherwise) are still found embedded within seemingly trite or just casual observations and character dialogue.
The land is harsh, unfriendly and stripped bare with the passing of the Macht - leaving only rotting corpses and woe behind them. Depiction of the surroundings fits the emotions, moods and pathos of the mercenaries and serves the purpose of conjuring up a somber impression for the reader quite well. The environmental extremes that the army encounters (freezing cold vs. baking heat) reflects the dual nature of the soldiers themselves; as you can discern from the following passage:
“ They were soldiers, creatures of appetite and routine with a core of indefinable restlessness at their heart. They were callous, brutal, sentimental, sardonic. They were selfish and selfless. They would knife a man over a copper obol, and would share with him the last of their water. They would trample a masterpiece of art in the dirt and be brought to tears by a veteran’s voice raise in a song. They were the dregs of the earth. They were Macht. ” (pg.204)
It is no secret that the world Kearney created within the novel draws heavily upon ancient Greece and the Persian Empire – the level of fantastical elements is kept at the minimum and without them “The Ten Thousand” could be just as easily categorized under the tag of historical fiction.
Characterization is utilitarian as well, at times even laconic and contributing to the story only the most necessary elements. I felt myself instantly drawn to Rictus, Gasca, Jason and some others, but as I’ve already stated – it’s the army of the Ten Thousand that bears the role of a main protagonist. The individual characters are there (only) to make the collective more human and palpable. I, for one, would want the relationships between the individual characters more fleshed out, but this clearly wasn’t Kearney ’s intent and I can understand the sense behind the decision.
All in all, we have before us a juggernaut fantasy novel even though, and because of its relative shortness (496 pages). It’s a brisk, fast paced book that never bogs you down with unnecessary detail. The story deals with the themes of courage, loyalty, friendship and bare survival as any true epic fantasy novel is supposed to - the required harshness is tempered with wit, great action scenes (Kearney is among the best in the field at those!) and moderate pathos that never oversteps the bounds of mawkishness. In “The Ten Thousand” Kearney accumulates all the good stuff from D.Gemmell’s books and mixes it with a pinch of R.Morgan’s style, but keeps his own distinct voice throughout. I would recommend this book to all fans of epic, no bullshit fantasy brewed especially for the modern reader. Be advised though, the novel contains some elements of strong language and has no strong female leads (I just hope that this novel doesn’t get misinterpreted as misogynist…alas, that wouldn’t be the first time for Kearney).
On par with the first book in "Culture" series. A similar disinterested and disinteresting protagonist. Interesting concept for a story and well execuOn par with the first book in "Culture" series. A similar disinterested and disinteresting protagonist. Interesting concept for a story and well executed with occasional boring sections (wich is weird, considering the page count is not long by today's standards).