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The Ten Thousand
Paul Kearney
Solaris, 465 pages

The Ten Thousand
Paul Kearney
Paul Kearney was born and grew up in Northern Ireland. He lived for some years in Copenhagen before moving to the United States with his wife. As well as the first three books in The Monarchies of God saga, Hawkwood's Voyage, The Heretic Kings and The Iron Wars, he has written The Way to Babylon, A Different Kingdom and Riding the Unicorn, all published by Gollancz. He and his wife have recently moved back to the UK and are living in Cambridge.

Paul Kearney Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Hawkwood's Voyage
SF Site Interview: Paul Kearney
SF Site Review: The Second Empire
SF Site Review: The Iron Wars

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Tammy Moore

The Macht, legendary for their military prowess, have little to do with the Kufr in the Asurian Empire to the South East. Ever since the brutal, long-ago war -- that the Macht narrowly lost -- all contact has been carefully filtered through the ancient Port of Sinon. Both races prefer to maintain the separation. Even without the lingering enmity of once-upon-a-time atrocities the two races find each other repellent in form and culture. Intrinsically alien. So it has been for generations.

But neither repulsion nor tradition are any match for ambition.

Arkamenes is the Great King's favoured brother, but power granted is not enough for him. He wants to claim power in his own right, to overthrow his brother and claim the crown for his own. To the end, he has ignored tradition and sent word across the sea to the Macht that he will pay for soldiers. With ten thousand of the legendary warriors to form the spine of his army, he can defeat his brother's Honai. With ten thousand Macht, he can take an Empire.

The Macht, who answer his call to battle, are elite mercenaries, the best the warring city-states can muster. For Jason, General of the army, fighting is a job like any other, while strawhead Gasca joined up to escape the role of youngest son. Only Rictus, orphaned citizen of the murdered city of Isca, fights because what else is he to do?

Ten thousand Macht mercenaries are led into the heart of the Asurian Empire and pitted against the vast slave armies of the Great King. They fight and die on foreign soil, for foreign ambitions. But win or lose, there is one question that they will have to face.

What is the victor to do with ten thousand of the hated, barbarian Macht in the middle of their Empire?

The Ten Thousand was inspired by Xenophon's The Anabasis, a story of Greek mercenaries hired by a Persian prince seeking to become Emperor. The Macht are clearly intended to represent the Greeks in this novel, with their city-states and their democracy, although their military tactics and reputation were more akin to those of the Spartans. And if any author out there is writing to please me in particular, they should know that it's hard to go wrong with Spartans. Greeks too, but mainly Spartans. So I was predisposed to enjoy The Ten Thousand by Paul Kearney. Thankfully he didn't disappoint, delivering an enjoyable and energetic military fantasy that captured both the politics and battles that make up any military campaign. Kearney is certainly a master of his craft when it comes to writing battle scenes, conveying both the scope and movement of the armies and the almost claustrophobic experience of the infantry soldier, wedged in line and with their world narrowed to the men beside them and the enemy in front. Wounds maim as often as they kill -- there's nothing picturesque here.

In many ways, the novel reminded me of David Gemmell at his best, perhaps not so much the writing style as the unflinching, brutal realism of it all. Neither side could really be counted as "good." The Asurian Empire was repressive and stratified, built on the backs of slaves -- one of the most chilling moments in the novel is when the Great King's advisor muses on the fact that thousands of the Juthan slave race toil in the dark under the ziggurat, never seeing the light of day, to pump water for the Great King's gardens. Yet they are cultured, capable of honour and kindness. The Macht are free, choosing to sign their contracts and voting for their commanders, but they are also brutal and viciously cruel. They were betrayed, it's true, but they were invaders and was that decision by the Kufr really so surprising? It's an unsentimental and unforgiving world, the only hope for something better in the glimpses of honour and morality we see in individuals.

I could have done with a different name for Rictus -- it took some time to erase the image of him wandering around with a death's head grin on is face -- and I was disappointed that Tiryn, the low-caste Kufr concubine, did not have more agency within the novel. Her introduction suggested that she had a major role to play in the rebellion, if a behind the scenes one, and instead her role turned out to be rape victim and love interest for one of the main characters. I am being unfair perhaps, she was never one of the primary POV characters, but it was still disappointing.

Other than those quibbles, however, this is a engrossing and exciting read that I couldn't put down. Kearney's battlefields are bloody and churned and fascinating to read, always keeping the reader anchored in the moment instead of losing them to textbook strategy outlines. The characters were complex individuals, each with their own flaws and virtues. One of the most touching scenes -- in my opinion -- is near the very end of the book between the Great King and his general, but I'll leave you to discover that on your own.

I'd certainly recommend The Ten Thousand to anyone who enjoys military fantasy, and to the Gemmell fans out there.

Copyright © 2009 Tammy Moore

Tammy Moore is a speculative fiction writer based in Belfast. She writes reviews for Verbal Magazine, Crime Scene NI and Green Man Review. Her first book The Even -- written by Tammy Moore and illustrated by Stephanie Law -- is to be published by Morrigan Books September 2008.

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