I was introduced to Paul Kearney’s writing when I read The Ten Thousand, and I instantly loved the way Kearney does his brand of historical fantasy. His focus is on a Greek-like, Bronze Age civilization peopled by the Macht, a war-like civilization of city-states very much like the Greece of ca. 400 BC. In both The Ten Thousand and Corvus, Kearney uses ancient history as a broad structure for telling a tale of war in all of its bloody horror.
In Corvus, Kearney brings back Rictus, one of the leaders of the Ten Thousand, mercenaries who fought their way out of the Asurian Empire after their employer failed to seize its throne, and who are very loosely based on this world’s Ten Thousand, Greeks who similarly fought their way out of Persia. Rictus has a legendary stature in the cities of the Macht, and is the general of the Dogsheads, a phalanx of mercenaries who fight in the cities’ petty and constant wars. The structure Kearney uses this time is the rise of Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great. Corvus is Kearney’s Alexander, and he invites Rictus and the Dogsheads to join him in his attempt to unify the Macht into one nation and to leave their internecine squabbles in the past.
Fantasy readers may be put off that there is very little fantasy in Corvus. The Ten Thousand was well-received by critics, but received some harsh treatment on fan sites due to the scarcity of fantastical elements (the biggest of which is the mysterious Curse of God, five thousand impenetrable cuirasses gifted to the Macht in their pre-history). I do not understand the criticism, as these are fast-paced, character-driven books that open up the reader to something most of us do not understand: war. Kearney pulls no punches in his descriptions of battles, and he does it better than anyone. When I read about his battles, I feel like I am in a blimp overlooking a football game, as I can see, in my mind’s eye, everything. No writer I know of has done it with Kearney’s skill, and he demonstrates so very well the horror and futility of war. Where Guy Gavriel Kay writes his historical fantasy with beauty and lyricism, Kearney writes his with harsh reality and perfect precision.
Kearney’s prose is economical and fast-paced, but the books in the Macht series do not attempt the breadth that his Monarchies of God series did. Corvus is, by the author’s choice, a different and less-complex book, and it is focused strictly on the Macht war and its protagonists, not an over-arching story line. Kearney could have made Corvus a much bigger book, with more political intrigue, more characters, and more depth. After all, in this historical fantasy construct, he has an enormous amount of material at his disposal, but Kearney chooses not to use all of this possible material. He eschews the idea of a big, sprawling epic (and I like big sprawling epics) and instead gives us a detailed piece of the whole story. I am beginning to like this kind of book more, as it is a quick read (I read it in a day), entertaining and yet significant, but it does not provide me with the depth that I usually crave when I read.
Kearney does an excellent job of showing the characters on both sides of the conflict (Corvus, the unifying would-be-king, and Karnos, the man of the people, standing up to tyranny for the freedom of his city), and the primary characters are developed well and with an ease that demonstrates Kearney’s talent. Readers of Glen Cook or Steven Erikson would likely appreciate Corvus; however, do not be afraid of the lack of magic. Also, it is definitely R-rated, due to the violence, language, sexuality, and scenes of rape. Fans of historical fiction would also enjoy Corvus, as in many ways, this series is closer to history than it is to fantasy. A very good read, and Kearney has once again demonstrated that he is criminally under-read.