If you read my feature on The Ten Thousand last month, then you might remember that I was quite excited by the sound of this novel. I'm not sure whether it was the cover art (yet another stunning Solaris cover), the premise (simple, but with real potential) or the prospect of epic battles that sparked my interest. It will suffice to say that something made this novel stand out for me, so when the ARC popped through my letterbox I was eager to see if my expectation was well-founded.
The novel itself is clearly inspired by the historical 'Ten Thousand' - the legendary army of largely Greek mercenaries that marched at the behest of Cyrus the Younger who hoped to seize control of the Persian Empire from his brother, Artaxerxes II. Except instead we have Ten Thousand elite warriors of the Macht, whose services have been hired by a wayward Prince to try and depose his brother, the Great King of the Assurian Empire. The novel follows the story of the Macht, as they leave their own country to fight their way across a vast, hostile Empire. And when things inevitably go pear-shaped, the story focuses on their fight for freedom as they seek to return to their homeland.
The first thing that struck me about this novel was Kearney's writing. I'd never read any of his novels before, and pretty soon I realised what I was missing. Kearney's writing style is very visceral and evocative; I was able to imagine some of the scenes extremely clearly, such was the atmosphere and emotions that were created. Yet he's versatile as well, as skilled at writing a huge battle scene involving thousands as he is writing a love scene. The pacing of the novel is solid and I particularly liked the short chapters, as they helped to emphasize and maintain this pacing. Kearney however is not just a very good writer, but a talented storyteller as well. I'd even go as far to say that there are shades of the great David Gemmell about him, in the way he handles human emotions and other themes like loyalty and courage.
The world of Kuf (not a name I liked at first, though it grew on me) is refreshing in the sense that rather than being influenced by the medieval, it clearly has its roots in the ancient world. The land of the Macht bears some resemblance to the Greek city states of antiquity, while the vast continent of the Assurian Empire - populated by a number of exotic races - is similar in many ways to the Persian Empire, with a geographically diverse landscape and numerous cities. I would have liked to have seen more of these cities and the culture within them, however the nature of the storyline meant that this was not really possible. Still, the world comes through well enough. It's not world-building on the Erikson scale by any means, but Kearney has nonetheless created an interesting, dynamic world with a definite sense of history.
The characters, as always, take prominence and there are a number of interesting figures in this novel. From Rictus, a youth driven on by his troubled past, to Vorus, a man caught between loyalty and his own contrasting beliefs, to Jason, a commander who realises - amid the horror of battle - what he really wants from life. Kearney manages to give each character a motive and avoids the evil-for-evil's-sake problem that so often tarnishes other novels of the genre. Kearney's characters find themselves in many horrific situations, and part of the enjoyment of the novel is watching how they handle the oppression and how their beliefs grow and change. On a greater level, Kearney does a very sound job of portraying humanity, with all its strengths, weaknesses and quirks. There are some powerful moments here, though it's hard to discuss them without spoiling the story. Suffice to say the human lust for gold and its devastating consequences are brilliantly shown.
The battle scenes are another strong point. Kearney manages to portray the fighting in agonising detail, right down to the beads of sweat on the soldiers' foreheads. It's gripping, brutal and horrifically realistic (I could use the word 'gritty' but I'm sick of hearing it). Though as good as the battles are, it was the relationships between the characters and their own personal journeys that I found more interesting.
The Ten Thousand is not without its flaws. The first half of the novel is not as strong as the second and there is a bit of a sense of waiting for something to happen (which is perhaps inevitable given the storyline). When said event did happen, it was like a switch had been flipped: suddenly I was engrossed, whereas before the novel - while holding my attention - was not as absorbing.
I also think that some of the characters could have done with a bit more depth. Gasca in particular was one character who I felt could have benefited from a bit more 'screen time' and at times I wasn't wholly convinced by his relationship with Rictus. Their friendship seemed to develop very quickly, yet I'm not sure we see enough evidence to back this up (with the exception of one or two scenes).
These relatively minor criticisms however don't spoil what is a very good novel indeed. An enthralling tale of epic battles and the strength (and weaknesses) of the human spirit, told excellently by Kearney through his vivid, evocative prose, The Ten Thousand could well be one of the best fantasy novels released this year.
Recommended for fans of: David Gemmell, Steven Erikson