The Monarchies of God by Paul Kearney

Werthead

Lemming of Discord
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Book 1: Hawkwood and the Kings

(containing Hawkwood's Voyage and The Heretic Kings)

The continent of Normannia is dominated by the five great Monarchies of God, five kingdoms and myriad duchies and principalities united in the worship of the Word of God as revealed by the holy messenger, Saint Ramusio. But now, five centuries after Ramusio's passing, that union is fracturing. The Merduks of the east have taken the Holy City of Aekir and put it to the sword and the flame. The Kingdom of Torunna stands open to their armies, with only a scant defence being mounted at the fortress of Ormann Dyke. But rather than reinforce Torunna, the Church is instead sending its Knights Militant into the other kingdoms, determined to root out heretics and burn them at the stake.

In Hebrion King Abeleyn, determined to reassert the secular rule of kings over that of the Church, sets his will against that of Prelate Himerius, who is determined to continue the burnings of heretics, magic-users and shapeshifters. As part of these intrigues, Abeleyn authorises his cousin Lord Murad to outfit an expedition across the Great Western Ocean in search of a new landmass rumoured to exist there. Captain Richard Hawkwood is commissioned to lead this expedition, but once to sea it becomes clear that someone, or something, is determined to see it fail. For his part, with the Fall of Aekir and the apparent death of the High Pontiff, Himerius is determined to rise to high office and see the entire continent ordered to his design.

As the Merduk armies dash themselves against the walls of Ormann Dyke, a young cavalry officer, Corfe, last survivor of the Aekir garrison, emerges as a canny warleader who may hold the key to saving Torunna and Normannia. For in his party from Aekir is an old man who claims to be the High Pontiff Macrobius, and the revelation of his survival will splinter the continent in two and unleash turmoil and strife the likes of which have not been seen in centuries.

Hawkwood and the Kings is an omnibus edition containing the first two volumes of Paul Kearney's classic Monarchies of God series, Hawkwood's Voyage (1995) and The Heretic Kings (1996). Long out of print, this reissue is a very welcome move from Solaris. If it wasn't for poor sales (despite heavy critical acclaim), this series would be mentioned in the same breath as A Song of Ice and Fire and The Malazan Book of the Fallen as one of the strongest epic fantasy series of the past fifteen years.

Kearney's writing style, which comes across somewhere between Martin, David Gemmell and Bernard Cornwell, is brutal and direct. This is not a pleasant world and all of the characters are flawed individuals developed with complex motivations. Lord Murad, for example, is initially portrayed as an antagonist but by the end of the book he has gained more of the reader's sympathy, whilst our erstwhile heroes Hawkwood and Corfe both have plenty of negative traits (Hawkwood treats his wife badly, whilst Corfe fled Aekir rather than stand and fight). In this sense the series withstands comparison to A Song of Ice and Fire, although the (relatively) slim page count-per-volume means that the series cannot build up the same kind of unstoppable momentum. Still, the complex politics and characterisation will appeal to fans of that work.

An area which Kearney could have badly fumbled is in his treatment of his source material. The Fall of Aekir is modelled after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, with the Merduks standing in (fairly obviously from the name) for the Ottoman Turks and hence Muslims. Kearney avoids this by showing the Merduks to have honourable generals and soldiers amongst their ranks even as their leaders are shown to be a mixture of the corrupt and the competent. He could have tipped this in the other direction with the Ramusian Church, a clear stand-in for Christianity, portrayed too villainously, but solves this by adding sympathetic POV characters within the Church's ranks (particularly Albec and Avila), showing the internal dissent and strife that have driven some in the Church to the current extremism.

Kearney handles the politics, characters and religious material deftly and also delivers great battles, whether on land or at sea. More common now, Monarchies was unusual when it was published in being set further up the technological ladder than most epic fantasies, with gunpowder, arquebuses, culverins and mortars being the weapons of choice. Fans of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe books or C.S. Forrester and Patrick O'Brien will be very happy with Kearney's depiction of combat, the life of a soldier and life at sea. Those readers tired of interminable thousand-page epic fantasy novels will also find Kearney's laser-like story focus and relentless pace refreshing.

Hawkwood and the Kings (*****) is epic fantasy at its very best, combining strongly-realised characters with epic battles, complex politics and a compelling storyline. This new edition will hopefully lead to a resurgence of interest in this over-neglected series. The omnibus is available now in the UK and USA from Solaris Books.
 

Werthead

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Book 2: Century of the Soldier

(containing The Iron Wars, The Second Empire and Ships From the West)

A great clash of civilisations is underway. From the east and north come the Merduks of Ostrabar, having overthrown the Holy City of Aekir and now prosecuting the invasion of Torunna. Stymied before the guns of Ormann Dyke, the Merduks have now outflanked the fortress through a seaborne invasion and threaten to destroy its defenders from the rear. From the west an army of the Fimbrian Republic marches to Torunna's relief, but the ultimate fate of the kingdom rests in the hands of a lowly cavalry colonel and his ragtag troops.

The heretic kings Abeleyn of Hebrion and Mark of Astarac have regained their thrones and thrown back the forces of the Himerian Church, but a greater danger is now unveiled as a single ragged ship flees out of the Great Western Ocean, bearing stories of madness and death in a new and untamed land.

Century of the Soldier collects together the latter three volumes of Paul Kearney's Monarchies of God series: The Iron Wars (1999), The Second Empire (2000) and Ships From the West (2002), and concludes the series in a strong, if not flawless, manner.

The structure of this omnibus is different to that of the first. The Iron Wars and The Second Empire form one long narrative as the Ramusian and Merduk armies clash for dominance of eastern Normannia, civil conflict breaks out within the Ramusian Church over certain revelations about its origins and as Abeleyn battles to hold his throne, whilst Ships From the West is effectively a sequel to the rest of the series, set seventeen years further down the line when the threat glimpsed during Richard Hawkwood's adventures is finally unleashed in full fury. The success of this structure has been hotly debated over the years, with a general feeling that Ships From the West is not as strong a conclusion as may be wished.

Before reaching that point, the third and fourth books are a triumph. Whilst writing them Kearney took part in massive American Civil War re-enactments in the USA and this informs the writing of the several huge battle sequences in these volumes, among the most impressively-described ever achieved in the epic fantasy subgenre (the Battle of the North More, the King's Battle and the conflagration at Armagedir vastly outstrip any of the battles in A Song of Ice and Fire or the Malazan series in their vividness). Yet Kearney is implacable in his refusal to glorify warfare. It is depicted as brutal and horrific, particularly a jaw-dropping sequence in the fourth volume when Kearney nails the problems faced by commanders when a small Torunnan force has to stand by outside a town being sacked by a large enemy formation whilst awaiting reinforcements. It's a horrible and disturbing scene, dropped in as an ugly reality check amongst the impressive cavalry charges and roaring artillery exchanges, and works very well.

His character-building is also impressive, with Corfe becoming a particularly well-realised figure. His extremely rapid rise from ensign to colonel and to higher rank is on the fast side (although, that said, Napoleon's rise from artilleryman to general was fairly meteoric as well) but in the context of the story it is plausible. The notion of a man stripped of all the things that connects him to the world save his abilities in war becoming a great general is a familiar one, backed up here by a tragedy which the reader is aware of long before the characters, leading to a powerful conclusion that should feel contrived, but doesn't thanks to the circumstances that leads the characters to that point.

A bigger problem in these two volumes is that events in the west take not so much of a back seat as an extended vacation, with Hawkwood and Murad's appearances reduced to mere cameos despite the gravity of the new threat from the west. However, this does resolutely focus the narrative on Corfe's story, to its benefit.

The final volume of the series has been criticised over the years for a number of reasons (most stringently by the author himself), and Kearney has addressed some of these issues through around 5,000 words of new material and rewrites. The fates of several characters left unresolved in the original book are now made clearer (most notably Avila and Abeleyn) and there are some tweaks here and there which clarify certain points. However, the biggest problem with the book, namely the extreme rapidity of the passage of events and the rushed feeling of the book (despite their short lengths by epic fantasy standards, the previous four books never felt rushed, whilst the fifth does), remains an issue, as does a potential plot hole regarding the fact that the enemy's Achilles heel as been extremely well-known since the first volume but is not militarily exploited until quite late in the day here, despite the seventeen years of preperation for the conflict.

That said, whilst the fifth book does not fulfil its true potential, it is also hardly a disaster of the same magnitude as Greg Keyes' The Born Queen (which wrecked the series almost beyond redemption) or Alan Campbell's God of Clocks (which rendered the entire trilogy pointless). The character and story arcs are brought to satisfying, if exceptionally bloody, conclusions and there is a dark irony in the conclusion which is still grimly amusing.

Century of the Soldier (****½) is an epic fantasy book about war, the reasons for it, what it costs people and the fact that its resolution is rarely just or dramatic. The final volume remains a little undercooked, although Kearney's rewrites do alleviate some of the issues, but overall this is a worthy conclusion to the story begun in the first omnibus. The book is available now in the UK and USA.
 
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