Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ex Libris: Paul Kearney's The Ten Thousand

I've always had a soft spot for Paul Kearney and his work after picking up his Monarchies of God series during a visit to the UK. After reading the first book, Hawkwood's Voyage, I was blown away with how an epic fantasy can be written with less words than the state of door stoppers today.Justify Full
Several years later, Kearney has been picked up by Solaris Books and his first output with the publishing firm is a new stand-alone book called The Ten Thousand. Based on The Anabasis of Greek Xenophon, the first part of Kearney's story relates how ten thousand mercenaries were hired by the prince of a far-off empire for the ultimate power grab. Unfortunately, though the well-trained and more superior mercenaries make mincemeat of their opponents, a ferocious final battle leaves their faction headless and the ten thousand soldiers find themselves trapped deep in enemy territory. How the ten thousand manage to escape from their predicament makes up the second part of the story and trust me, not everyone makes it.

This story seems like a pretty straightforward re-telling of Xenophon's tale. But for me, this book resonates because the idea of impossible odds as envisioned by Kearney seems to be a by-word of that era. (Anyone here heard of this story about 300 Spartans going up against a million Persians at Thermopylae? It makes me wonder why such stories from that age of history is well-remembered.) Fortunately, Kearney does excellent battle scenes and the rendering of the Macht army's struggle and escape is well done. This is no surprise as Kearney can do the set-up and the actual battle in fewer pages as compared to any of the epic fantasy kingpins like Robert Jordan or George. R.R. Martin. Granted, Jordan and Martin are trying to expand the politicking behind the fighting into another element of the story itself. However, Kearney prefers to encapsulate such ideas as part of the lead-up to the battle.

In terms of epic fantasy, this is more ancient (i.e. Greek) than medieval-- and there's not much magic involved except for armored artifacts of war worn by the leaders of the Spartan-like Macht. The only idea that you're in a secondary fantasy world is the fact that-- aside from the strange names-- Kearney posits a world wherein humans are a minority against the horse-headed Kufr, the ruling power behind the said empire. As concepts go, these are quite interesting though they remain just that-- concepts-- as Kearney doesn't really elaborate much on them.

In terms of characters, this stand-alone is reminiscent of David Gemmell's stories: a bit flat characters with troubled pasts meet, form bonds, find themselves in an impossible-odds situation, manage to survive (or not). Unlike Gemmell, Kearney has no stand-out heroic characters like Waylander the assassin or Druss the Axeman. However, this book is about soldiers rather than about warriors: the small, disciplined, close-ranked army against the massed chaotic horde (so those of a military bent might appreciate this book). Likewise, you still got the action but its perspective is either limited to the characters introduced or to the military unit per se.

In total, Kearney proves again in this work that he's got the chops for epic fantasies that are action-oriented adventure stories. And with the passing of Gemmell and leaving this throne for that type of stories open, the man can only get better and become the by-word for epic fantasy readers.


The Kawanga Kid said...

Hi, this story was actually the basis for the cult classic gang film "The Warriors".

banzai cat said...

No freaking way?!? That movie?!? 8-0