The Ten Thousand is the first Paul Kearney book that I have read, and it is as different a fantasy as I have ever read, and in fact, it is barely a fantasy. The only fantastic elements are that it is set on a different world — Kuf — with two moons, that the “races” of humans are separated a little more by physical aspects than those in our world, and there are 5000 sets of impregnable black breastplates that were given (apparently by the goddess Antimone) to the Macht, an ancient warrior society very similar to the Greek city states that pre-dated Philip and Alexander of Macedon. Aside from that, this novel is a historical novel that borrows closely from Greek history but, by putting it in a fantasy, Kearney is able to look at the characters of this band of men without having to apologize to historians. He can tackle this story and the themes he raises with, as one of my favourite authors says, “the gloves off.” This book is a compelling and fast read, though it never kept me up until 2 a.m.
Kearney bases his story on the story of the Ten Thousand — the Greek mercenaries who were hired by Darius to overthrow the reign of his brother, Artaxerxes II. Saying more than that will spoil the plot, but if you know ancient history, which I did prior to reading this book, the plot follows the same path, which is a steady and logical one, to its inevitable conclusions. In this story it is Arkamenes who is attempting the coup, and Ashurnan who is the reigning king.
Actually, the plot in this book really is secondary. What is most interesting about this story is how the characters, mainly Rictus and Gasca, develop, but others also, including Vorus, the renegade Macht general who works for the Kefre king seeking to destroy his countrymen. Kearney pays particularly special attention to the details of men in combat together, how they relate to each other, and how they respond under horrible pressure. This is no fairy tale story. It is a war story, and the battle scenes are graphically described, with the details of ancient phalanx style warfare set out with perfect clarity. If you are at all squeamish, this book is not for you. It is very, very violent. But then again, human history is very, very violent, and Kearney is simply being honest.
Kearney took a wonderful little snapshot of Ashurnan’s character through a reminiscence of his childhood, which included his brother Arkamenes and another childhood friend who supports Arkamenes against him. Though Ashurnan is only a supporting character, this explained so much of the way the Empire is governed. Yet, it made the Great King so very human without a ponderous pile of description, and this allowed the book to be a fast, yet fulfilling read. I found this to be a particularly effective method for avoiding long descriptive passages (which many authors are not talented enough to make interesting).
The Ten Thousand is an adult book, due to the violence and rape (no actual scenes, but indirectly referred to at several points). I suspect that anyone who has ever served in a combat zone might appreciate this book. It is a wonderful character story, and a relentless tale of battle. Kearney belongs to the gritty realism school of fantasy, and it does not get any more real than this. If it did, it would be a historical novel.
I have given The Ten Thousand 4.5 stars, for while it is a great read, it is not perfect. The ending was so abrupt (perhaps that is Kearney’s striving for reality coming through) that I was left unsatisfied. The ending was real though, and somehow felt right, if not satisfying. The exploration of the character Jason, for me, fell a little short. And the cover, which sports some really good artwork which evokes the content, is destroyed by a photo-shopped GQ model in a breastplate (ugh!). However, these minor beefs aside, Kearney clearly achieves what he set out to do with this book, and any discerning adult reader who enjoys historical novels or military fantasy would really enjoy The Ten Thousand. I will be looking out for more of Kearney, especially when I need a break from high fantasy.