The Ten Thousand by Paul Kearney
Published by Solaris Books
Published September 2008 (ARC copy received)
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
For some fans of the Epic Fantasy genre, the world is a clearly delineated place. Men are men, women are women and each follows their designated societal and cultural roles. The idea of (usually) athletically-muscled heroes, skilled in hand to hand fighting, who do what they have to do in difficult, if not impossible, circumstances and who live their lives mainly up to their proverbial necks in gore, are fantasy stalwarts, and are often regarded (and often by non-genre readers) as the archetypal stereotypes of the genre.
To their rescue then, we can add Paul Kearney. His latest, The Ten Thousand, is an unusual book that could appear to the reader simultaneously as perversely both contemporary Fantasy and old-fashioned style Fantasy, in the sense that it will appeal to those readers who like the current vogues in the genre (dark, gritty, melancholic) that make Fantasy quite popular, and yet, in other ways it is old-fashioned in that the tale is dominated with men doing manly-bloke stuff (killing, pillaging, raping) and very few women (unless they are involved in the aforementioned killing, pillaging and raping), in a blitzkrieg-like rampage through a Sparta-like world called Kuf.
It is easy to see why such tales appeal. Living relatively simple and straightforward lifestyles, though not always easy, they have a beguiling simplicity to a reader that can be very appealing. Life is hard, yet simple; you live and die by traditional virtues and values.
As such, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Gritty, gory stuff. For some though, this is what Fantasy is all about; and if your stomach is strong enough it can be very entertaining. Such a lifestyle makes you appreciate your own position all the more.
To the story, then. In outline, the story is very straightforward. The Assurian Empire is a harsh and longstanding system of rule on the world of Kuf. To this, when required, the army hired mercenaries to help fulfil their duties. This story mainly deals with one group of mercenaries, the Macht, and characters within it: Rictus of Isca, a relatively new recruit enlisted after having his home farm ransacked; Gasca, a fellow recruit, also being recently procured, with whom Rictus soon becomes firm friends.
The story develops further when the Macht are recruited by a renegade Asurian, Arkamenes, the brother of Ashurnan, the Great King of the Asurian Empire. Hoping to overthrow his brother and take power, a major army of both Asurian and mercenaries are created and transported to a great battlefield. Along the way innovative tactics are used by experienced strategists and various skirmishes occur until the major battle itself.
Such themes have been very common in Fantasy circles, if not historical fiction. (This story actually may be based on a real event in Ancient History.) Many have commented on this book been similar in style and content to the books of the late David Gemmell. However, realistically, it would be very unfair to dismiss Paul as a Gemmell-clone, though there are broad similarities.
The first thing you may have to get used to here is some of Paul’s unusual creative language. There is terminology here that is not normally in your typical fan’s vocabulary list: aichme, panoply, pasang, plashing, for example. Perhaps, (and most un-Gemmell-like), is that the cursing is imaginatively enthusiastic – Paul is not afraid to curse and swear throughout. F*ck, sh*t, and b*stard are all used liberally here, and it is the first time that I’ve read the term ‘rat’s-c**t’ as an expletive. Whilst I’m not a prude, and realise the context of the vocabulary, it must be said that the book is very salty in its depiction of soldier life. Basically, it’s hard, unpleasant and then you die.
So this is a book clearly not for some. Interestingly, there are places where it reads not as a Fantasy novel, but instead very much as an earthy military history novel, though there are glimpses of things throughout that may not be real: for example, the ageless and indestructible Curse of God cuirasses, ‘Antimone’s Gift’, have a distinctly unreal black lustre to them which seem to absorb all light around it.
However what the typical Fantasy fan is here for are the battles. It is here where Paul really scores, in those heart-thumping, screaming, blood-spraying combat scenes. Here are not scenes of glorious war, steeped in valour and ritual, but chaotic battles where survival is the real heroism, where you move forward or be trampled by your colleagues, and walk ankle-deep in body-parts and entrails. The writing is such that the reader feels as if they are there, even when they may feel they do not want to be.
What also comes across strongly here is the melancholic life of the soldier, the feeling that the unending battles are often for naught and when all seems won, it often isn’t. Many mistakes are made herein, with disastrous consequences, and the downbeat ending of the book may not be what everyone wants.
However Solaris Books have clearly seen what is a niche in the genre market; and they should be applauded for returning to publication an author whose efforts should be more widely appreciated. At a time when gritty fantasy seems to be a popular trend, The Ten Thousand is perhaps a book whose time has come.
Mark Yon / Hobbit, July 2008