The Ten Thousand by Paul Kearney

The Ten Thousand

AuthorPaul Kearney

Pages: 480 pages
Publisher: Solaris
Release Date: August 26, 2008
ISBN-10: 1844165736
ISBN-13: 978-1844165735

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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – the blacker-than-midnight breastplates worn by only a few great generals, for instance – 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.

  • SQT July 23, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    I’ve been struggling lately too. Too much of a good thing I think. I asked for all these fantasy books to review and now I’m boggled by it all.

    I suppose it’s a good problem to have, but I feel terrible when I take a long time to review something– especially if the author sent it personally. I was raised Catholic so I’m trained to feel guilty over pretty much everything.

  • James (Speculative Horizons) July 24, 2008 at 3:46 am

    Aidan, it’s a shame you put it down halfway through as the second half is definitely superior to the first half. When I was reading the novel, I too had some of the difficulties you’ve mentioned. Then – in the space of a few pages, a single scene – everything changed and from then on I was engrossed. I found the ending particularly moving.

  • Sean July 24, 2008 at 9:35 am

    Burnt out on fantasy…..uh oh….aren’t you halfway through writing your own fantasy book? (rhetorical) Impact? (non-rhetorical)

  • thrinidir July 24, 2008 at 10:43 am

    I can certainly see where you are coming from Aidan, and can’t object to the arguments you’ve exposed; it’s just that I “felt” differently at certain points that niggled at you. I’m actually glad that somebody found this novel not as good as the rest of us (who reviewed it); I’m especially glad that it was you, since you wrote an impeccable review, and there is not a point I can wholeheartedly object to, but still…I wish this book caught you at a better moment :).

    If it counts – read “The Mark of Ran” (book one of The Sea Beggars); it’s done differently and might suit your moods atm better I think.

  • aidan July 24, 2008 at 10:53 am

    SQT – I used to feel like that, slightly guilty when I wasn’t able to immediately get to a novel sent to me for free. But then I realized that, if anything, we bloggers are doing the publishers and authors a favour rather than the other way around. We can’t be their press junket, now can we?

    James – As I was finally deciding to put the novel down for good, your words kept haunting me and were almost enough to keep me going. But, in the end, I decided that my gut reaction was the right one. I usually give a novel the benefit of the doubt 100 pages or 1/4 of its length before deciding it wasn’t for me. Kearney’s novel, and glimmers of greatness that I saw buried beneath the problems, were enough to get it along even farther than this, but in the end couldn’t win out.

    Who knows, it’s short enough that I’ll probably end up picking up a copy of it and giving it another go when I feel like I’ve given it enough time. My upcoming trip to Europe would be the perfect place, I think. In that event, I’d probably revisit the review and see how my opinions had changed, if at all.

    Sean – That’s a good question, a very good question. I suppose I should have qualified that statement by saying that I’m feeling burnt out on ‘Epic’ or ‘Secondary-world’ fantasy, rather than the genre as a whole. What I’m really craving and enjoying at the moment seem to be novels with a more modern spin to them and, most importantly, a modern cadence and flow to the dialogue.

    Science Fiction (especially set in the near future, like Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, which I’m reading now) and Urban Fantasy (I’m itching to read some more Gaiman at the moment) are some of the obvious sub-genres of speculative fiction that fill this itch.

    How is it impacting Through Bended Grass? Well, not really, as far as I can tell. It’s set in a contemporary setting, as you know and that allows me to play around with a modern language (it also helps that it’s written in first person) and Rowan views the Fey world through the eyes of someone everyone of our generation can relate to. I think, in many ways, writing Through Bended Grass is responsible for how my tastes are shifting at the moment, rather than the other way around.

    Hope that clears up your concerns!

  • aidan July 24, 2008 at 11:07 am

    Thrinidir – This was probably one of the most difficult reviews I’ve written. Not because of my relationship with Paul and Solaris (which I hope will continue to be strong), but rather because I had a hard time rationalizing with myself how I truly felt about the novel.

    As I mentioned a few times, I could tell while reading the novel that Kearney is certainly a good writer and I’m still very much looking forward to reading The Sea Beggars and The Monarchies of God when the omnibus editions are finally released.

    I’ll be very interested to see the reaction from the public when the novel is released in a few weeks.

  • Sean July 24, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    Solaris nor Paul could justifiably have a problem with that review. It was honest, complimentary, and informative. After reading the review (the book only sounds decent to me) i clicked on the link that is his name, read some excerpts from his books. Why? B/c you said he has a very poetic style to his writing. What do i like? Very poetic writing. REad some excerpts and was rather impressed….with? His poetic writing style. Plan? By some books by Kearney.
    Problems? None. You are spreading the word and engaging readers to try new authors. Some day when my epic fantasy book is published, hopefully you can do the same for me :D even if its in the form of an honest review that doesn’t depict it as the new best thing ever to happen.

  • Gabriele July 24, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    Lol, I’m one of those who may find I’m going to like the book for what caused you problems. I like description if it’s done well, I totally don’t nind a whole bunch of POVs (heck, I write omniscient myself), and I like reading history books – only they usually don’t have rocking good battles, so that’s a bonus. :)

  • aidan July 25, 2008 at 9:00 am

    Gabriele – If you like description, especially when it’s done well, then I expect Kearney will be right up your alley. Even as someone who’s not a huge fan of excessive description, I could certainly see the beauty in Kearney’s passages.

    Can’t wait to hear what you think of the book!

  • Paul Kearney July 28, 2008 at 12:33 am

    If you don’t read a book to the end, you aren’t in a position to review it. Period.

  • Graeme July 28, 2008 at 3:15 am

    What makes a review a review? Aidan’s basically telling us what he thought about what he read, even though he didn’t make it to the end. He can’t say much, if anything, about the book as a whole (for obvious reasons!) but I’d say he’s in as good a position as anyone else to comment on what he did read. Does that count as a review though? Kinda, I think…

    Aidan – For the record I pretty much disagree with what you said about the characters, I thought there was plenty to engage with but that’s more about me and what I got out of the book.
    Nice review :)

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