The Ten Thousand
Author – Paul Kearney
Pages: 480 pages
Release Date: August 26, 2008
Several months ago I wrote a controversial review of Paul Kearney’s The Ten Thousand. Some people applauded it, some people called me a hack for reviewing a book without having finished it. Either way, I put to paper a reasoned explanation of why I felt compelled to put down the novel over half way through.
Jeff, the scribe of Fantasy Book News & Reviews, read The Ten Thousand and a funny thing happened: he felt more or less exactly as I did about the first half of the novel, but pushed through where I gave up. The Ten Thousand, based almost wholly on the strength of the second half, ended up being one of Jeff’s favourite reads of the year. Quite a turn around, no? In response to this, Jeff issued me a challenge: to re-read The Ten Thousand and give it the chance he felt it deserved. I’ll admit that there was always a small part of me that wanted to give Kearney that second chance, and so I took Jeff up on the challenge (being able to pick one novel for him to read and review was icing on the cake).
When I originally put The Ten Thousand down, about halfway through a chapter, my biggest complaint was that the initial promises of the novel â€“ The Macht fleeing for their lives through a hostile foreign land â€“ still handn’t surfaced. The pacing was off and it felt like Kearney was breaking one of the cardinal rules of writing: never waste a word. If I had deigned to finish that chapter, I may very well have finished through to the bitter end. Jeff was right, the second half of the novel is heads and shoulders above the first half in terms of everything that matters â€“ pacing, characterization, bloody battles, human sacrifice, visceral imagery. The real story begins with a twist at the end of that chapter and doesn’t look back.
The most apt comparison I can make is that The Ten Thousand is the modern day incarnation of an Epic Poem â€“ full of delicate twists of language, heroic feats, almost impossibly obtuse, and yet hauntingly beautiful, prose, but ultimately hard to relate to â€“ but as someone who’s always had trouble finding the appeal in The Odyssey, Gilgamesh and Beowulf or, outside of poetry, Xenophon’s Anabasis for that matter, I can’t say the comparison appeals to me.
The flight of The Ten Thousand is a frenetic journey and the pages fly by, bringing back memories of the (admittedly superior) Chain of Dogs sequence from Steven Erikson’s Deadhouse Gates. It makes me wonder whether Kearney wouldn’t have been better off starting the novel off with the betrayal of the Macht and then focusing his energy on their escape. It seems everything is over much too soon, despite a strange encounter with some out of place werewolf like creatures near the end of the novel that seemed to serve little purpose other than to extend the novel by another chapter.
One complaint that carried on from the beginning of the novel is that the Macht, frankly, just aren’t very likable. They rape and pillage their way aross the land, and sometimes I was wondering just who the ‘bad guys’ really were. The one character whom I was able to empathize with came to a sloppy, undeserved end. Perhaps Kearney was trying to make a point, but I couldn’t help feeling cheated by the ultimate fates of some of the characters.
Kearney hands out death even more liberally than George R.R. Martin (the popular author to judge death count again these days), and as the cast of point of view characters dwindles the pace picks up and I began to grow more attached to those who were left. Several times while reading the novel, I idly wondered if perhaps the novel would have worked better as a Fantasy version of The Forever War or Starship Troopers â€“ a young, naive recruit, thrust into the role of a small pawn in a bloody war, giving a first hand narrative of the faceless atrocities and heroisms happening at any given moment.
Not many working authors can twist a beautiful phrase like Kearney, but it’s a bit of a wasted effort in such a rushed story. Given more pages, a more focused story and a bit more depth of characterization, The Ten Thousand could have reached greatness. As it is, all the fun’s over almost before it begins and the balls-to-the-wall ending wasn’t enough to make up for the slow burn beginning.