Paul Kearney is a name that flies under most fantasy radars. It is undeservingly so. Possessing writing skills that move stories at a good pace, utilizing typical themes of myth (honor, courage, loyalty, duty, etc.), writing event-focused storylines with realistic action, and having perhaps the best ability to layout and describe battle scenes in the genre today, Kearney warrants more attention than many of the so-called greats of 21st century epic fantasy. With his Monarchies of God series finished and The Sea Beggars hanging in publishing purgatory, Kearney set off in a fresh direction, and recently completed the Macht series. The first book in the trilogy is called The Ten Thousand and is the subject of this review.
The Ten Thousand is the story of a mercenary army, the Macht, and the perilous situation they find themselves in far from home when their benefactor has the rug pulled out from under their feet. The Macht an indefatigable mountain warrior society, they have more trouble with tribal in-fighting than threats from the Kufr who live on the plains and valleys below. Kufr a vast and wealthy kingdom, one of their nobles, named Arkamenes, seeks to supplant his brother as ruler and hires 10,000 of the best Macht from the mountains to storm the capital with his Kufr troops. The problem is, they never get there. Tables turned in dramatic fashion, the Macht find themselves in for a fight of their lives if ever they are to return to their beloved homeland again. The Kufr outnumbering them significantly, death comes early and often as the Macht fight one battle after another, their lives in the hands of fate. Told through the eyes of the young warrior Rictus and his commander Jason, the battlefield comes alive.
As is obvious, The Ten Thousand is a take on the Greek epic The Anabasis. The Macht dutifully filling the role of the Greeks and the Kufr, the Persians, Kearney has done his homework. As a result, the story’s setup will feel familiar to history buffs. No history lessons needed, it will also be of interest to those wanting to know more. Most particular are the battle scenes. Kearney seeming to relish in the era’s style of fighting, he goes into great detail describing the phalanxes and their techniques and methods for war. This, in fact, being main draw of the novel, readers will walk away with a feel of what war was like for Greek mercenaries defending their honor.
With battle style and historic analog the focus, The Ten Thousand’s fantasy elements are light, and feel almost non-existent. Readers looking for a more fantasy-oriented book like the Monarchies of God will have to tone down their expectations. The tale Kearney tells is instead grim and cold, the daily life of a Macht/Greek soldier fighting and surviving taking center stage. In the same vein, readers looking for characters to latch hold of and care for should likewise keep expectations low. Like Greek myth itself, event, plot, and setting take precedence over characterization and emotional effect. The result is a story more mythic in tone (think Moorcock’s Elric or Cook’s Black Company) than affective (e.g. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire or Ruckley’s Godless World). At times reading more like historical fiction, the book’s “fantasy” categorization should be taken with a grain of salt.
In the end, The Ten Thousand is as realistic a look at Greek phalanx fighting as has been produced in literature. The book categorized as fantasy primarily because the setting is a land not of our own, its parallels to The Anabasis are otherwise acknowledged and redolent, historical fiction a better categorization. The action gritty and tight, readers should expect an essentially book length protracted fight, the few chapters at the beginning and end opening and closing matters in succinct fashion. Fans of the aforementioned authors, as well as R. Scott Bakker, David Gemmell’s Greek works, and Steven Erikson will certainly want to take note. In fact, anyone calling themselves a fan of military fantasy should check out this work or others by Kearney. His is a name worthy of mention in the same breath as the greats of epic fantasy these past two decades.