Monday, 10 June 2013

Paul Kearney - the best fantasy author you've never read

That's a pretty bold claim. We have the heavily anticipated "AAA" authors like GRR Martin, Pat Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson, Joe Abercrombie, Daniel Abraham, Scott Lynch and Peter Brett - but Kearney doesn't seem to even make the "B" list, which is rather astonishing considering his work compares favourably with all those mentioned, and tends to remind me somewhat of a mix between the "new fantasy" school and the late David Gemmell.

 The Hawkwood books have been condensed into two omnibus editions - Hawkwood and the Kings and Century of the Soldier - which seem the best and cheapest way to get the whole series.

Kearney's main body of work includes the Hawkwood series, the incomplete Sea Beggars trilogy, and the more recent Macht trilogy.

I'm focusing on the Hawkwood series as it is a good starting point. The Sea Beggars are considered better by many, but is incomplete, with the third book "due" since 2007 due to a publishing hiatus.

The Hawkwood series is fantasy, but its "world" mimics one of my favourite historic periods, the 15th-17th centuries dominated by the Spanish Empire. This is a world of galleons and muskets, but also includes magic and shapeshifters, duly opposed by the Inquisition and the ambitious Church.

The first book starts strongly, with a fishing boat encountering a drifting galleon with a dead crew... the hapless fishermen are promptly ripped apart by a terrifying creature hidden aboard.  It shifts to Aekir (Jerusalem) where the Merduk (Islamic) hordes are just sacking the city.  The dual storylines of the book are Hawkwood (sailing captain) on his journey to a dark and mysterious New World; and Corfe (soldier) a veteran of the sack of Aekir and destined to lead the defence against the Merduk hordes.

I found this series good but annoyingly incomplete. Apparently the final book "Storm of the Dead" is due out in 2014.

The Hawkwood books are excellent, with Kearney providing some of the best battle scenes I've come across. Many readers prefer the Hawkwood voyage over the Corfe military storyline, but I personally prefer the latter, perhaps simply due to the good battle scenes.

There is also plenty of intrigue - Kings, Queens and the meddling Church weave a tangled web of plotting, and in the background is the apparently unambitious Fimbrians - a sort of Roman Empire that once controlled much of the known world but has now retreated to become a kind of Switzerland.   Magic is on its way "out" and gunpowder and the Church are on the rise.

In the first books the seagoing kingdoms of the West face threats from without (the Eastern Merduk sultanates) and within (perhaps a more insidious threat from a church seeking secular power). But are there darker forces at work?  Guided by the log of the abandoned ship, a voyage to the New World faces many dangers, amongst them agents of a perhaps greater, hidden menace. 

I enjoyed the middle books the most, with their focus on the military battles and desperate defence against the Merduks.  The last book (Ships of the West) was something of a letdown - it reminds me of the ending to the Lord of the Rings movies - it dragged on and on, passing many logical "ending points." I reckon it could have been hacked down and appended to the earlier book, the Second Empire, which was for me the climax of the series.

Steven Erikson said they were the best series he'd read in years.  I'm not an Erikson fan (there's a difference between treating authors like grown ups and lazily not properly explaining things/assuming everyone understands your own little D&D world) but he's on the money here.  Kearney takes some rather cliched historical and fantasy references and makes them all his own, whilst avoiding the trap of being overly drawn out and wordy.  He blends the "new fantasy" of gritty heroes, dark plots, heartbreak and complex intrigue with the readability of David Gemmell. All the more impressive in that his Hawkwood series first came out in 1995.

Kearney's latest series is practically a retelling of Xenophons's march of the Ten Thousand

If you like the Hawkwood series, the Sea Beggars (with an even more naval flavour) is acknowledged by many to be better, but it is frustratingly incomplete.  Set in a world abandoned by it's Creator, the hero Rol is of the blood of an ancient race possessing magical powers. He is driven from his remote fishing village to be trained by a mysterious mentor, in a range of deadly arts.  Rol goes forth into the world to become a privateer.  The sequel is far more naval in nature, but ends rather abruptly - annoying since many have been waiting since 2007 for the ending to the series.

A "finished" series is his more recent work on the "Macht" - the not so subtle title "Ten Thousand" - gives away its roots - basically a retelling of Xenephon's Anabasis with a force of mercenary Macht (Greeks) stranded far from home inside the Assurian (Persian) Empire. Whilst its setting is far more vanilla (a.k.a almost straight historical fiction) than the "Hawkwood" series, it plays to Kearney's strengths.

Like great action scenes, gritty heroes, and complex plotting and intrigue, without having to wade through the 800+ page tomes which seem fashionable nowdays?  Paul Kearney marries the easy-reading style of David Gemmell with the gritty complexities of the "new fantasy" - and the more streamlined books mean you don't have to sign away a year of your life to try it out.

Recommended?  Absolutely. I wouldn't say he's above GRR Martin or Abercrombie, but he certainly deserves more plaudits than Peter Brett or Brent Weekes, all of who sell truckloads more books to much greater acclaim.  He seems to be able to finish a story without padding it out to 800-900 pages, which seems to be the "minimum" page limit  of a fantasy these days.


  1. I appear to be afflicted with either very bad luck or extreme technical competence as far as this blog is concerned, as not only has the search function failed to work for the past few weeks, leaving me unable to find particular posts other than by laborious scrolling and persistence, but I have today composed two comments, one of which failed to appear due to an unspecified error, while the last effort had no sooner been completed than Firefox crashed, leaving this box void of my lovingly composed musings.

    Perhaps, however, you are more interested in hearing my opinions on Kearney, which I will attempt to reconstruct from memory. First of all, however, I will attempt to publish this as it stands, in order to determine whether there is any point in persisting further.

  2. Ah, success! Truly, the gods of cyberbuggery have not yet abandoned me. To resume:

    Without wishing to fall prey to the odious practice of one-upmanship, I feel bound to point out that I discovered Mr Kearney quite early, having read the majority of The Monarchies of God - the true name of what you dub the Hawkwood series - back in the 90's, in their original hard cover incarnations. Unfortunately I never managed to get hold of the final volume. For a long time I've wanted to reread the series straight through - as you point out, the books can be read quickly, being not only relatively short but also fast-paced - but, in the absence of the final volume, this has proven impracticable. I may just have to forego perfectionism and acquire the paperback omnibus editions.

    Anyway, I quite agree with your assessment of Kearney's strengths, and found the tale very compelling, with a pleasing combination of military action, the supernatural, and political intrigue. The comparisons with Martin and Abercrombie seem quite apposite, and I can't help wondering whether their respective sagas were in part modelled on this. (Martin acknowledges a debt to Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, which seems similarly underappreciated).

    For what it's worth, I took what you be an read as the equivalent of Jerusalem to be an analogue of Constantinople, for the simple reason that this is a much closer historical parallel, both in terms of the 'period' in which the alternative history is set, as well as the prototypical events. (Jerusalem fell to the Saracens in 1187, Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, and it was the latter who menaced Europe during the following two centuries). This hardly matters, however.

    I've not read the subsequent series. Has the Sea Beggars been completed yet?

    1. I agree the Aekir = Constantinople, both for setting (this fantasy, along with "The Religion" actually got me interested in the siege of Malta and I also enjoyed the history "Empires of the Sea"). The Sultanate is the Ottomans, sure.

      Though on the other hand I do think the city Aekir itself as Jerusalem as it is a "holy city" and the "Patriach" (yes, Eastern Orthodox) is more like the pope in the way the Western nations are concerned.

      I keep trying to re-read the Tad Williams books but they just seem to be a bit dry to get into, and I remember them being solid, but not amazing..., the Sea Beggars has not been completed.

      If you haven't read the last of the Monarchies books, don't bother. It's kinda like the dragged out LoTR endings, or the unecessary 2nd and 3rd Matrix movies...

  3. Your memory is obviously much fresher than mine. I may have only read three of the books - I think there are five? It's a shame if the conclusion is an anti-climax, as there was a lot which kept me reading. It's rather similar to what I said elsewhere about Joe Abercrombies books (before the recent trilogy). I was so intrigued by the hints of a greater conflict in the background that I'd feel cheated to discover that it was all a tease, and he's not going to reveal what it is all about. I've no idea what he's working on now - his website reveals nothing.

    I'll admit I haven't read the last volume of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (actually two volumes in the paperback edition)but enjoyed what I did read, though it may not quite have the 'zing' of Abercrombie & Martin (not that you'd agree with the latter).

    1. It's book 5 that is the let down. Even Kearney himself didn't like it. It feels like a rushed attempt to tie off loose ends that didn't need tying, skipping forward decades at times.

      GRR Martin did have zing. Up until about book #3. However he's fallen in love with himself, his fame, and his universe that it's now just rambling filler with no plot in sight. (Or plot buried beneath so much meaningless filler it may as well be nonexistent)

      He's a good author, possibly a great one. However he needs an editor with the balls to give him a kick up the bum and get him back on track. (Something no editor seems willing to do, given the amount of 800+ page fantasies with a 250-page plot I see of late - they don't even seem willing to fix poor English)