It was with a certain sense of trepidation that I sat down to read Paul Kearney's latest. In case you didn't know, I'm partially responsible for the publication of this novel. Indeed, Solaris editor Mark Newton got in touch with Kearney after reading my blog post pertaining to the author being dropped by both Transworld and Bantam Dell at the same time last year. I got a nod in the acknowledgements for that, but no word that a portion of the royalties would come my way. Which is a bit unfair, considering that Kearney's agent is getting 15% of those same royalties and he or she hasn't done anything. Ah, the unfairness that is life. . .;-)
Understandably, I wanted this book to be good. Far be it from me to wish to push crap on SFF readers, after all. Well, I'm pleased to report that this dark and gritty fantasy stand-alone in the tradition of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is likely Paul Kearney's best work to date.
The Assurian Empire has ruled over the world of Kuf for centuries. Yet there is dissension at its core, and the new king's brother hires ten thousand elite mercenaries of a violent race knowns as the Macht to overthrow the reigning monarch. This superb fighting force sets sails for a foreign empire, and begins to march toward the capital city. And when their patron dies on the battlefield, the Ten Thousand suddenly find themselves abandoned on enemy soil. Surrounded by imperial armies on all sides, they must fight their way back to the sea and their homeland beyond.
Paul Kearney is known for his brevity, and The Ten Thousand is a stand-alone offering. Which means the worldbuilding is minimal and doesn't get in the way of the storytelling. There are no info dumps in this book, and the author provides just enough information to take the story further. Still, even in the absence of long elaborations, it's evident that there is much more depth to The Ten Thousand than meets the eye. Although he writes with tight focus, the narrative and the glossary show that Kearney created a detailed universe.
The Ten Thousand is a character-driven tale which showcases a number of POV characters on both sides of the conflict. Of the principal protagonists, I found Jason, Vorus, Rictus and Tiryn to be particularly well-executed. No cookie-cutter characters in this one, just a bleak story filled with genuine men and women.
One would think that the plot, given the book's nature, would be rather straightforward. To my surprise, it wasn't the case. Yes, there is enough violence to satisfy any action aficionados. And yes, there is a body count that even GRRM would approve of. Yet some of the characters show a depth and moral complexity which elevate The Ten Thousand above most of its peers. Jason and Rictus, especially, made this novel an excellent reading experience.
Good pace, grim setting, superior characterization, bloody battles -- The Ten Thousand is Paul Kearney writing at the top of his game.
The Ten Thousand is a brutal and uncompromising tale of warfare and survival written by one of the most underrated talents in the fantasy genre. Highly recommended.
The final verdict: 8/10