Monday, 27 February 2012

Book Review | The Ten Thousand by Paul Kearney

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On the world of Kuf, the Macht are a mystery, a seldom-seen people of extraordinary ferocity and discipline whose prowess on the battlefield is the stuff of legend. For centuries they have remained within the remote fastnesses of the Harukush Mountains. In the world beyond, the teeming races and peoples of Kug have been united within the bounds of the Asurian Empire, which rules the known world, and is invincible. The Great King of Asuria can call up whole nations to the battlefield. His word is law.

But now the Great King's brother means to take the throne by force, and in order to do so he has sought out the legend. He hires ten thousand mercenary warriors of the Macht, and leads them into the heart of the Empire.


War. War never changes.

Of course, one could as easily – and as righteously – state that war changes everything.

In The Ten Thousand, the ugly truth – and indeed, it is a fearsome-looking thing in this book, and this series, the truth – lies sprawled and spewing somewhere in the midst of this blood-muddied mulch:

"The army marches, there is a slaughter, and a form of words is made to make the world change. But the world does not change; the water still flows, the seeds still sprout, and those who work the soil continue to work it, a little poorer, a little thinner and sadder than before. The storm moves on, and in its wake the world goes once more about its business. This is war, this passing storm on the land. This stink on the air, this dust-cloud which hems the sky. These creatures marching in their thousands, changing everything and changing nothing with their passage. This is war."

These creatures, as Northern Irish author Paul Kearney has it, are the Macht, "a seldom seen people of extraordinary ferocity and discipline whose prowess on the battlefield is the stuff of legend," and the Macht live to fight: to triumph against the enemy, or die well (if one can possibly die in such a fashion, and there are no guarantees here) in the trying.

They have warred with the vast Asurian Empire before, have the Macht, only to be beaten back by an overwhelming force, and some centuries have passed since they dared cross the sea to meet their sworn enemies in battle. They've occupied themselves with feudal in-fighting in the interim; a meaningless business, given the greater threat, but a business it is, for the Macht are a mercenary folk, by and large. Small armies exist here and there, but most of the Macht's fighting forces are united under the crimson rather than some cause: a colour beholden to no better motivation than gold – and where there is demand, it follows that there must be a supply to meet it, or exceed it.

To wit, The Ten Thousand begins, in earnest, in the immediate aftermath of one such clash: with a sole survivor – Rictus – of the rape of his great city, Isca. Having failed to beat back the attackers, the strawhead’s only hope is for a good death, but in the process of earning one, an admiring opponent grants him an unexpected reprieve.

Rictus lives on, then – and it's as well, for he is our through-line from first to last in the ambitious narrative Paul Kearney tells in The Ten Thousand, and beyond – but for now, he has nothing. He is "alone. Cityless. Ostrakr." And exiles such as he "sometimes chose suicide rather than wander the earth without citizenship. To the Macht, the city was light and life and humanity. Outside, there was only this: the black pines and the empty sky, the world of the Kufr. A world that was alien."

All Rictus has to hold on to hereafter is the colour: the crimson of the mercenary men he aims to join, alongside another young soldier he meets on the road to Machran, where he and Gasca are hired. Their mission is a mysterious one, to begin with – the force mustering in this city is large enough to seize even Machran, the capital of these fragmented lands (if capital it has) – but soon they take to the sea, these ten thousand men, with Rictus and Gasca in their midst. And when at last land is sighted, it is the land of the Kufr, of course.

In this kingdom across the sea, you see, a rebellion is afoot. The Great King's brother Arkamenes means to seize the throne by force, and to that end he has called upon the legendary forces of the Macht. With his inexhaustible riches he has bought these mythical mercenaries, these businessmen who deal in death, and they have been paid handsomely; some of the men certainly have their qualms as regards the march to the Asurian capital, where Arkamenes means to take Ashurnan's place, yet the bottom line is solid, so they keep their concerns to themselves.

I would not hesitate to say that the Macht are an incredible creation, except that they are not an original creation so much as a tremendous and oddly timely recreation, given the present-day relevance and prevalence of PMCs: of a factual historical force – aking to the 300 Frank Miller and latterly Zack Snyder recently repopularised – which waged the self-same campaign we find the Macht engaged in amid this low fantasy landscape. These Greek mercenaries were also known as the Ten Thousand, and by way of Xenophon's Anabasis – that bastion of classical Socratic philosophy as it relates to the subjects of government and leadership – they can be traced back to fully four centuries before the common era. Paid in full, they took to Persia – enemy territory, in other words – under the orders of Cyrus the Younger, who planned to force his way into power over the entire Achaemenid Empire.

The tale did not end well. Cyrus was killed in the great battle at Babylon, and the Ten Thousand whose fate you will find discussed in the history books were stranded, now leaderless and practically purposeless, deep in the realm of their old enemy. This marching republic, for so it was, had to take charge of themselves thereafter, and a similar, if not identical conundrum awaits the Ten Thousand of Paul Kearney's darkly fantastic fictionalisation.

Considering how closely The Ten Thousand follows Xenophon's account of the originating events, the most significant narrative beats of Kearney's inspired adaptation will be familiar – perhaps to a fault – to an audience who know the story, but even these readers are apt to be impressed, because there is a richness and a texture to this rendering that the renowned record is largely absent, never mind its seven fulsome volumes, or its contemporary currency in academic circles. Like the revolutionary mercenary army at its heart, The Ten Thousand is a "picture brought bright and colourful out of myth," brilliantly depicted and embellished in all the right ways by its ambitious author, a former history student himself.

Heedless of whether Kearney created them whole-cloth or not – and to a certain extent of course he has – the Macht are truly an awesome force to behold:

"They raised a dustcloud behind them, a tawny, leaning giant, a tolling yellow storm bent on blotting out the western sky. It seemed a nation on the march, a whole people set on migrating to a better place. The sparse inhabitants of the Gadinai drew together, old feuds forgotten, and watched in wonder as the great column poured steadily onward, as unstoppable as the course of the sun. It was as grand as some harbinger or the world's end, a spectacle even the gods must see from their places amid the stars."

Perhaps the most remarkable thing Kearney brings to the table – a table sumptuously laid in any case – is his characterisation of the Macht as mercenaries; as men going about the business of making money above all else. As beaten but not broken soldiers of fortune as opposed to idealistic war-makers, I know of no equal for them in fantasy fiction. As one spearman asserts:

"There was no extravagance to the fighting; no glory, Gasca realised. These men were doing their job. They were at work. They did not raise battle-cries, or scream curses. They pushed with their comrades, they looked for openings, and they stabbed out with a swift, economic energy, like herons seeking minnows. [...] The Kefren could not match this remorseless efficiency."

Meanwhile another observer, the Great King himself, notes that:

"Their bronze was different. Ashurnan could not quite puzzle it out, until he realised that it was old metal, tarnished and dimmed. These man had carried their harness a long time. It was not a matter or burnishing; it was a matter of years. And there was no decoration to it. They did not take joy in their turn-out. They wore their panoplies with all the pride and elan of labourers set to a day's heavy shifting. Ashurnan's mouth began to sneer under the komis as he regarded them, and then his lips straightened. Their formation was perfect, as though someone had gone running along their front with a plumb line. They stood at ease, almost unmoving. [...] They seemed almost bored."

You could sharpen a spear on Kearney's prose, so pointed is it, yet at times it is poetic as well; as above, so below. Meanwhile the author builds his world brilliantly – majestically, but not oppressively – atop the foundations of a true story, terrific in its own right. The pace is perfect, and the pitch is too, to boot. Though his characterisation of certain purveyors of the ensemble of perspectives on offer herein could be better – I speak of Gasca and Tiryn specifically – I do not think that The Ten Thousand need necessarily look to individuals to make its indelible mark. The power it possesses, and the gruesome scar it carves, is not the result of any one man, after all, but ten thousand of them... armed to the teeth and armoured from head to toe, warring for a wage.

Even if grim militaristic fantasy like this isn't your usual purview, please: take a chance on The Ten Thousand. Unlike the men of the Macht, and their historical equivalents, you've little other than time to lose. The series certainly continues in Corvus, to conclude in Kings of Morning, but The Ten Thousand was originally conceived as a standalone narrative rather than the first volume in a trilogy, and it functions as such. If "black flies laying their eggs in the eyes of the dead" and the like prove too much for you, then no harm, no foul... you need not read on.

If you have the stomach for it, however, you won't be able to stop yourself, because for what it is, even if what it is is not for everyone, The Ten Thousand is an utterly gripping reading experience. Powerful... poignant... profound, even.


The Ten Thousand
by Paul Kearney

UK and US Publication: September 2008, Solaris

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  1. Great review man... Really made me want to check this one out.

  2. Nice review Sir! I'm a big Kearney fan. I loved his Monarchies of God series, and The Ten Thousand is another winner. Kearney is definitely an under appreciated fantasy author. I need to get off my ass and read Corvus.

  3. Super review of a super book. Check out Corvus...and Monarchies of God...and the Sea Beggars. His first novel is called a Different Kingdom and is kind of like a Northern Irish Mythago Wood. Paul Kearney is a criminally under read author and deserves a much, much wider readership. And with cracking reviews like this one, Niall, he might just get that readership.

  4. I'm over the moon to hear everyone liked it! My review, that is. Thanks, guys. Obviously The Ten Thousand was something else itself, and the more I can do to help get the good word out there about it, the better. To wit: I've got a trilogy giveaway on the blog today, a review of Corvus on the docket for tomorrow, and my thoughts on Kings of Morning will be published on before the week's out. If I can sell a single soul on this series, and they can sell a single other, and so on, then my work here is done. :)

  5. @Iain - So I've read the rest of this trilogy, and The Monarchies of God, but The Sea Beggars series and A Different Kingdom have escaped me to date... more's the pity. I understand Solaris will be publishing an omnibus edition of The Sea Beggars before the year's out, complete with the long-delayed concluding volume, and that's quickly shot up the list of 2012 books I'm most looking forward to... but no word of a reissue of A Different Kingdom yet.

    But hey, that's what Amazon Marketplace is for, isn't it? Ordered!

    And thank you Iain for the advice, and the kind words.

  6. He started off with three stand-alone, non-epic fantasy novels: THE WAY TO BABYLON, A DIFFERENT KINGDOM and RIDING THE UNICORN. I haven't read BABYLON but the latter two are excellent, especially A DIFFERENT KINGDOM, and show a much greater range than his epic fantasy work (which is still very strong).

  7. I love this book. I'm actually a huge fan of Greek and Roman history and am intimately familiar with the story of The 10,000, and even so I found that I couldn't put this down. I agree with you about the lack of characterization, but I just finished Corvus and was glad to see that he seems to have fixed that problem and the characterization there was every bit as good as the action.