The Ten Thousand
Author – Paul Kearney
Pages: 480 pages
Release Date: August 26, 2008
For the sake of full transparency, let me start this review by saying that I only made it about halfway through The Ten Thousand before putting it down for good. Because of this, I’ve struggled over the last several days about how to write this review, or if I even should. The difficulty comes from the fact that despite my inability to invest myself enough in the story to feel compelled to continue through to the end, I could see so many flashes of brilliance throughout that it makes me wonder if maybe I’m the problem and not the novel.
That’s obviously a suspect statement to make in a review, so let me explain myself: part of my issue, which isn’t even close to a factor under Kearney’s control, is that I’ve begun to feel over-saturated with Fantasy â€“ 15 or so years of reading little other than the genre can do that to you. Instead I’ve been reading a lot of Science Fiction and feel the pendulum of my moods swinging that way over the last several weeks. I feel, as unfortunate as it sounds, that I just wasn’t in the right place to be stepping into Kearney’s bloody, visceral world.
The world crafted by Kearney in The Ten Thousand is a unique combination of familiar earth and an alien fantasy world. Poetic description comes naturally to Kearney, and from his words springs an effortless picture of the bleak and beautiful world of Kuf â€“ the thunderous, bloody crash of armies, the magnificent cities of the Assurian Empire, the sweeping, beautiful countryside through which The Ten Thousand march their relentless march.
Part of my issue with the writing, however, comes from this. As a reader, I vastly prefer the swift use of dialogue and action to move along a story, with little-to-none in the way of superfluous description. Unfortunately, The Ten Thousand is the foil: sparse with the dialogue, instead relying on dense paragraphs of description, which is a shame because what dialogue is there is top notch. Of course, the story being told by Kearney (a violent struggle for survival in a foreign land) doesn’t lend itself to a lot of dialogue, and as far as writers of his ilk go, Kearney’s certainly near the top of the heap. It just didn’t flow as smoothly and easily as I’d like.
Another issue that rubbed me the wrong way was the fact that, despite being well over halfway through the novel, I still hadn’t even reached the major plot point touted on the back of the book â€“ The Ten Thousand, betrayed and alone in an alien world, fighting their way back through an army many times their size, fighting a bloody fight for their lives. It seems to me that this is the meat of the story and it just took too long to get there. Perhaps this err should be pinned on the marketing department rather than the author, but either way I think the novel was a little misrepresented to potential readers.
The battles that I did read (of which there were several) were certainly every bit as good as they’d been touted by those fervent fans of Kearney’s that seem to lurk on every message board. Many people consider Kearney to be one of the most under-read authors in Epic Fantasy and I expect that a lot of this praise rides on his ability to draw the reader into the no-holds-barred battles. I’m certain if I had made it farther in the novel, the stakes would have been raised even higher as the Ten Thousand fought their way out of the Empire.
So why’d I put it down? The main reason, I suppose, was a lack of focus. The copy of the ARC that I was reading was under 300 pages and was home to no less than 6 or 7 Point of View characters. It’s hard to juggle this many POV characters in a novel several times longer, but in The Ten Thousand it just felt like we were being stiffed at every turn. The story would have been much stronger if told through the eyes of one character â€“ specifically Rictus, a young warrior, eager to prove himself from among the many nameless faces making up The Ten Thousand. Each of the POV characters had glimmers of glory, but we spend so little time with each that I found it hard to even care about their fates, as though I were reading a history book instead of a Fantasy novel.
The low-magic world of The Ten Thousand appeals to me and makes those hints of magic â€“ the blacker-than-midnight breastplates worn by only a few great generals, for instance â€“ all that much more intriguing. I’m skeptical, however, of Kearney’s decision to include other non-human races into such an otherwise realistic world. Issues of racism aside, it seems to me that the story could have been told just as effectively (if not more so) had the battles been fought between human armies instead of several hard-to-keep-track-of deviations of ‘normal’ humans. Again, this decision plays into the caste system of Kuf (the kingdom invaded by The Ten Thousand), but felt like an unnecessary layer of complexity that could, in theory, limit the audience of the novel.
The Ten Thousand is a conundrum. On one hand, I can certainly see why many people consider Kearney to be criminally under-read: poetic prose; a visceral, I’m-really-there sense of battle; a sly eye for exposing the realities of being human. On the other, I just couldn’t become invested in the story. I’m still looking forward to the upcoming Omnibus edition of The Monarchies of God, and none-the-less-so despite my dissatisfactions with The Ten Thousand. I am also not so bold as to be blind to the fact that many people will probably consider what I call ‘flaws’ to be strengths of the novel and that audience will absolutely love what they find with The Ten Thousand.
‘Opinions are like assholes,’ they say, ‘everybody’s got one.’ And I expect that this will never be more true than with Kearney’s The Ten Thousand; love it or hate it, it’s sure to get people talking.