The Ten Thousand by Paul Kearney.
Yours for only £5.99 from Solaris. Or you could literally buy 8 pints of beer in Bali for the same price. Just saying.
Review written by Orlok
Ok, this was my first Paul Kearney novel.
Never heard of him before this and fantasy novels haven’t really been my thing since I was 17. But, I have a fondness for Xenophon’s Anabasis Kyrou, not least because it did get me laid once. Long story.
So, this had some pretty big shoes to fill and I emptied my mind of all negativity before I loaded it onto the tablet.
Set in the world of Kuf, we have the Macht and Kufr in place of the Greeks and Persians. At first the Kufr are described as horse faced and I had this image of a Being John Malkovitch society populated entirely by Sarah Jessica Parkers but sadly this was not to be. As the book progressed the equine elements were phased out leading me to think this was some sort of perceived racial stereotype the Macht had of the Kufr. That was quite clever.
So, the story is as follows…
A fuck ton of Macht mercenaries are assembled and bankrolled by the usurper Arkamenes, who seeks to depose his brother, Ashurnan. The former thinks he should be running the show and severely underestimates the influence and ability of his brother. End result, it all goes tits up and the mercenaries, bereft of their leadership and the promised cash quickly high tail it for home with the forces of the Kufr in pursuit. “Hang on”, I hear you say “this is the plot of The Warriors!”
You’re not wrong, though the story is sadly lacking of Baseball Furies and Riffs. There is a yeti, but I’ll get to that later.
In the ranks of these fleeing mercenaries are Jason, Rictus and Gasca, one looking to find himself, one looking to put behind him a world of pain and misery and the other to see the world; meet new and interesting cultures and then kill them with his dad’s spear.
I did find it hard to actually root for the characters as they didn’t seem that well defined in terms of goals, especially Jason who comes across as a bit of a flapping douche. I think had they have had a set agenda from the outset it might have made for a better journey as they fought for this ideal and weighed up the agonies of obstacles placed in their path by cruel fate and bad footwear choices. Instead they are just dropped into a situation when it all goes tits up and we get then reacting on a base level with no fleshed out personality to know if they are acting in character or out of character.
Jason discovers where his balls are before the end, Rictus finds himself with more responsibility than he bargained for (which I didn’t really buy as he is mentioned time and again as the best of the best of the best when he seems to be merely the most adequate out of a bunch of mooks) and though vengeful against one character in the book he remains a decent sort, trying to reign in the mad dogs under his command. What I will say about Rictus is that of all the characters he is intelligently treated and is shown not to be an indestructible killing machine who always does the right thing. In one piece he actually hides while a dark deed is done knowing full well he is in no condition to do anything about it.
Kearney doesn’t treat the other characters nearly so well, though.
Other characters drift in as the story requires some to decent effect and some not. Almost all are superficially painted as fully rounded human beings with flaws, but we never get to see beyond this veneer into the inner man or horse faced woman below. Vorus in particular was a fascinating character being a Macht living amongst the Kufr and acting as an advisor of sorts and getting plenty of tail. He has his loyalties severely tested and I think we could have seen a lot more of him as he has to make his hard choices between his own people and as much poon as he can handle.
The refreshing thing is that unlike something like 300 the bad guys here are no more evil than the good guys. They are just different and want different things using the same methods of force, bribery, rape and murder to make this shit a reality.
We get one or two plot twists along the way but these are not of the George RR Martin variety and the real highlight of the middle section is the battles scenes. These are bloodily descriptive and at times you can almost feel the splash of claret as someone is run through or hacked in half. Kearney has a very visceral writing style in this regard and I assume that is to give some form of authentic brutality to the story. The only thing I have read with similar direction is Pressfield’s Gates Of Fire and I really liked that too.
What the book also does well is portray the harshness of the environment for these fleeing miscreants. People die of infections, hunger, exposure and succumbing to wounds they left the battlefield with. There are more rapes, cuss words and gory demises than the two series of Rome I just watched. It is a brutal place and a brutal time and reminded me a lot of the two days I once spent in Cardiff.
What doesn’t work so well is the dialogue, which seems very pointed and I can only rationalise this is intentional to convey the situation they are in. Because of this, though we get no insight into the characters other than them relaying plot advancement and commands.
Grammatically there were a few issues but to highlight these would be pedantry as my own grammar is shocking and bordering on insult.
Puzzlingly, for a fantasy novel, there is almost no fantasy world building going on. There was a sort of yeti but that’s it. I didn’t spot any magic, talking animals or supernatural entities. The Bible, regarded by some lunatics as a legitimate historical document, has that stuff out the arse. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions there.
Oh, they did have some black armour worn by the Cursebearers. Of mythical origin, this was passed down from dead comrades and was black enough to not be reflective. I had 40k carapace armour in my head for some reason when I read that.
Kearney does paint the different cultures of the book quite well but any decent historical novelist can do that by drawing on established research. From a fantasy side of things there was nothing really unique to these peoples which I think you need to give it that spin.
We get a glossary at the end which on the tablet was a fucker to keep switching to. There was also a map. I looked at that once but decided I wasn’t going to keep looking at that every five minutes like it was an orienteering exercise.
I don’t know why he felt it necessary to stick so closely to Xenophon’s work right down to the speech that Rictus gives about rear guards and vanguards. Kearney could have just used the initial set up as the basis and then done some Harry Turtledove shit and had Rictus and co sweep across Kuf killing, fucking and stealing everything before setting themselves up as pimps. We didn’t have to have the ending he gave us and the story of the Ten Thousand could have been an entirely more entertaining one.
Because of this, the end of the book is a bit…formulaic. I know that the end of the Anabasis is not the greatest end to any account and even the “Thalatta! Thalatta!” is robbed by an epilogue of yet more punch ups. However, the whole end here was trite and predictable and purely designed for a sequel of sorts. I felt like I had slogged through a comparatively dull mid-section (after a very decent beginning) for almost nothing in the way of closure. The cynical part of me suggests this is just to paint Rictus as the hero of the Ten Thousand and give him some weight for book 2.
So, bottom line. I didn’t love it but I did finish it, which is something. Some interest remained throughout but aside from the descriptive battles I didn’t come away with much regard for the characterisation and therefore cared little about their ultimate fates. I also didn’t see the point of sticking so close to Xenophon and setting this in a fantasy world that had little fantastical aspect about it. It could have easily have been set in turn of 19th Century Afghanistan or pre-Columbian South America.
And had el chupacabra instead of a yeti.
That said, I’m off to write a gritty historical fantasy novel about a troubled Private Investigator/Messiah in 33BCE Jerusalem who can do magic tricks, has a gang specialised in different skills (fishing, betrayal, skepticism) and who hooks up with an ex-prostitute to solve crimes.
I’m calling it “Jew Detective”.