Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Book Review | Corvus by Paul Kearney


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It is twenty-three years since a Macht army fought its way home from the heart of the Asurian Empire. The man who came to lead that army, Rictus, is now a hard-bitten mercenary captain, middle-aged and tired. He wants nothing more than to lay down his spear and become the farmer that his father was. But fate has different ideas. A young war-leader has risen to challenge the order of things in the very heartlands of the Macht. A solider of genius, he takes city after city, and reigns over them as king. What is more, he has heard of the legendary leader of The Ten Thousand.

His name is Corvus, and the rumours say that he is not even fully human. He means to make himself absolute ruler of all the Macht. And he wants Rictus to help him.


It is all too easy for those of us who live in the past’s long shadow to fall into the trap of thinking history a particularly passive pursuit. The preserve of academics and ancients, with long books and longer beards.

But no.

Maybe now, but in the thick of it, I think not, because history does not simply happen: it is made. It is shaped. Created, and then, over time, finessed into fineness, like a spearpoint thrust through the years. As to those who hone history - just so - they do not somehow stand outside of it. On the contrary, they become a part of it. In a very real sense, these men and women of whispered myth and inherited legend become history, and not always to their credit, nor indeed their pleasure.

Rictus is one such specimen. Twenty-odd years on from the great tale of the Ten Thousand – in which an army of Macht mercenaries that he led (towards the end) fought into and inevitably out of the vast continent beyond the hills of the Harukush – Rictus, to his chagrin, has become as much myth as man. As his friend and fellow soldier Fornyx marvels:

“What you saw, in your youth. The places you marched, the world you wandered across. You were part of a legend, Rictus, and you saw sights few of the Macht have ever imagined. The land beyond the sea, and the Empire upon it. For all of us it is nothing more than a story, or the words in a song. But you were there.”

He was there, yes. This much is indisputable. But Rictus is one of a rare few who remembers what it was to be in the midst of that mess of men. He remembers “the shattering heat of those endless days on the Kunaksa hills, the stench of the bodies. The shrieking agonies of the maimed horses. And the faces of those who had shared it with him. Gasca, dead at Irunshahr [and] Jason, whom he had loved like a brother, who had come through it all only to be knifed in a petty brawl in Sinon, within sound of the sea.” It was not such a pretty picture, whether then or in memory.

In any case, Rictus has moved on. Hardly a young man when the Ten Thousand marched, he has since grown old, made a home, and fallen in love with a family fashioned from both blood and the brotherhood of battle. Summers he still spends campaigning for coin with his Dogsheads, an army of motley mercenaries in an age with no seeming need for real redcloaks... but this matters little to Rictus. After all, he lives now for winters, when he can come back to Aise and Rian and Ona on the farm, and set his spear by the door.

Rictus dreams of the day when he can put his weapon away for good, but that day is not this day, because this winter, Rictus returns home to find rumour rife. There is talk – endless spoken speculation – about a man called Corvus, a would-be conqueror named after “a black carrion bird” who has blazed a trail inland from Idrios, declaring himself overlord of all the Macht cities whose armies he has effortlessly overcome. His next stop is likely to be Hal Goshen, which stands barely a handful of pasangs away from Rictus’ farm.

So, something wicked this way comes? Well... Corvus – if he exists – is either something wicked, or something wickedly different, but whatever his purpose, whatever his principles, Rictus doesn’t intend to involve himself in this murderous myth-making. He’s secured his place in the history books already.

But then, cruel and unusual, the rumour comes a-calling: Corvus and a centon of his men arrive at Rictus’ homestead, and pressgang the old legend into service. With his family in immediate danger, Rictus has little choice in the matter... and sure, he’s curious too. Passing fascinated with this powerful young man who seems to be “standing on the threshold of some change in the world,” just as Rictus did in his youth. Corvus, as it transpires, does not make war in order to destroy the Macht, but to finally unite this fragmented force. If he succeeds, the Macht will be one people for the first time since time immemorial. This is another chapter of history in the making, and Rictus, though older and wiser, is old enough now, and just wise enough, to know it. Thus, he takes up his spear, and marches mercilessly – with the Dogsheads and many other thousands of men – on his own people, side by side with this strangely persuasive invader.

Corvus may take place in the same timeline as The Ten Thousand, and star the same central character, but – and here rears a more meaningful inheritance – it is a remarkably self-contained story. What the reader needs know about its predecessor, Paul Kearney imparts precisely, concisely. Even at the outset of this summarily standalone sequel the events of The Ten Thousand have faded to myth and old man’s memory, such that returning readers and complete newcomers will be equally well met, and warmly welcomed besides, because Corvus is a markedly more intimate novel than the first volume of this disparate trilogy.

The return to Rictus’ perspective is like coming home to gruff uncle, worn and torn by a long war abroad, but no less beloved for his far-distant hardships, meanwhile Kearney spends a pleasantly surprising span attending to matters of character, little and large alike. Assuredly, our main man and the unstoppable invader occupy the larger part of the limelight, but Aise also has an arc, as do various players on the other side of the divide, like Kassia, Kassander, and particularly Karnos, a common man’s man who single-handedly raises an army to stand against Corvus.

It would be unfair to say that The Ten Thousand lacked character, exactly, but Kearney’s considerations are certainly more minute herein than as regards the mass of mercenaries from the last part. Where its antecedent revolved around immense armies, Corvus is concerned with individuals, so there is an easier foothold for the reader from the offing, and a gathering impression of personal jeopardy as the narrative inches on... but I’m afraid it also follows that the big picture appears a little diminished. Furthermore, this sequel is somewhat less... eventful than The Ten Thousand: of the two big ol’ battle scenes – already a scant number next to the innumerable encounters strung together in book one – only the second, a long siege on a comparatively complicated battlefield, feels genuinely momentous. Tragic, in fact, because even here Kearney punctuates the Macht’s phalanx fighting with a more discrete dilemma, which – to twist the knife one final time – occurs mere minutes away from the frontlines.

The storm of Corvus’ last gasping act is as harrowing as it is exhilarating, then, in large part thanks to the character-focused calm before, during and after it. The author’s willingness to wholeheartedly savage his supporting cast is important, but without the emotional moments aforementioned, the cacophony of noise which concludes Corvus would have been a fraction as impactful, with little meaning to speak of beyond the visceral immediate experience. This, as I see it, has always been the single most significant issue of histories: lacking little guys with little problems – without context, and character – the big pictures they present often err on the unfathomable. In Corvus, however, Kearney brings his players home handily. What with its far narrower focus, it may be a surprising species of successor to a tale of The Ten Thousand’s scope and scale, but be assured that we have here a truly bravura book, as ambitious in its way as the magnificent myth before it.


by Paul Kearney

UK and US Publication: October 2010, Solaris

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  1. Yup. I need to read this.

    I like the new look for the blog!

  2. I loved these first two and I'm dying to get my hands on the third. Great review and also diggin' the new look.

  3. Gasp!!!
    What the hell did you do to the poor blog!
    I just cannot in all sincerity appreciate this new look I liked the previous style much better.

  4. Haha! Read this review earlier todau and popped over to TOR to read your Kings of Morning thoughts. Slavering at the prospect of the postie dropping it through my post box tomorrow.

    Btw, if you have an ipad/iphone there are two short Warhammer stories that Kearney has done. They can be bought individually on ibooks. I know its shared world fiction, but hey it's Paul Kearney writing about Space Marines and chaos daemons!!!!

    Like the revamp.