Century of the Soldieris the omnibus edition of The Iron Wars (1999), The Second Empire (2000) and Ships from the West (2002), and is the concluding volume of Paul Kearney’s re-issued The Monarchies of God. It is as compelling and readable as Hawkwood and the Kings, and while it does not enjoy five-star status with its predecessor, it is an excellent conclusion, and I stand by my statement in my previous review: any person who loves good epic fantasy must read these books.
In many ways, Century of the Soldier is a very different book from Hawkwood and the Kings. The first two thirds continue where Hawkwood left off, dealing with the ongoing Merduk conflict in Torunna, with the battles within the Ramusian Church over its origins, and with the schism between the kingdoms that make up the so-called “Monarchies of God.” The last third of the omnibus, previously Ships from the West, is a sequel to the rest of the series, and deals mainly with the outcome of the results of Hawkwood’s voyage and battle between the divided church. It is this latter part of the book that weakens the tale somewhat, as it feels rushed and incomplete. Nevertheless, Century of the Soldier is a worthy sequel to Hawkwood and the Kings, and deserving of our collective attention as one of the most important works of fantasy published in the last fifteen years.
The Torunnan-Merduk conflict is gripping and intense, and rise of Corfe from a lowly ensign to a decorated officer is meteoric, but also reasoned and sensible. Corfe exemplifies Kearney’s ability with characterization: Corfe’s anguish, his iron brittleness and battlefield glee, and the products of his being stripped of his humanity by the brutality of warfare are incredibly vivid and clear. It is a familiar story about the human condition that is freshly executed.
Kearney’s description of a Torunnan commander having to wait for reinforcements while a Torunnan town defends against a merciless sack by the Merduks is particularly chilling. The reader must be warned: Kearney describes battle and the actions of an invading army in vivid, gory detail, and there is a scene of rape included that is horrible, brutal and disgusting. I questioned the inclusion of these details at first, but when taken in the context of the Torunnan commander waiting for the reinforcements that will allow them to defeat the Merduks, I understood that Kearney hates war. He tries to demonstrate this hate using characters like Corfe and Merduk commander Shahr Baraz, while also showing how ordinary soldiers with ordinary backgrounds can easily turn into monsters capable of unconscionable evil. The conflict ends after a series of battles that Kearney describes better than anyone has before in fantasy, including George R.R. Martin and Steven Erikson. Kearney’s battles are vivid, intense, alive, brutal, and bloody. However, the resolution of the conflict is unsatisfying, and serves to further demonstrate the futility of warfare as a means of settling disputes.
The church schism and the conflict within the kingdom of Hebrion is less a centerpiece than the Torunnan-Merduk conflict, but it shows Kearney’s deft ability at telling a tale of political intrigue. While not as complex as George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the political drama is quick, intelligent and exciting, which is an amazing achievement given the small amount of space in which Kearney tells this tale.
The last third of Century of the Soldier is problematic. While a number of the difficulties from the original publication have been solved by Kearney’s addition of a further five thousand words or so, the story feels rushed and a little unpolished. I was dissatisfied with the abrupt nature in which some major characters and storylines met their end, and I got the distinct impression that the book could have used an additional twenty to thirty thousand words in order to provide a satisfying conclusion. That being said, to use a metaphor, I felt like I had a wonderful meal, but the dessert was not quite properly prepared. The after dinner port and cheese were entirely missing.
In other ways, Kearney wraps up the story wonderfully, and the conclusions are bittersweet, just, unjust, and very, very real. There is even the foreshadowing of some of the same idiocy that led to the conflicts in The Monarchies of God, inviting the reader to reflect whether we humans will ever learn. The production problems I noted in the first book persist in the second, but the story does not suffer for it. Century of the Soldier is a worthy sequel to Hawkwood and the Kings, and earns a full 4.5 stars.