Genre: Fantasy — Grimdark
Series: The Macht #1
Publisher: Solaris (August 26, 2008)
Length: 465 pages
My Rating: 4 stars
The Ten Thousand is a grimdark fantasy penned by Paul Kearney. Inspired by the historical journey of ten thousand Greek warriors in the Persian Empire circa 401 BC, this tale is a gritty, bloody, and brutal look at the realities of ancient war (especially civil war) and its undeniable horrors. With more than a few fantastical elements added, Kearney turns this into far more than historical fiction, but magic does not play as large a role in the narrative as some would like. However, if realistic and unabashed looks at ancient warfare and its consequences are what you love, then this is a can’t-miss grimdark.
On the world of Kuf, the Asurian Empire reigns supreme. The tall, golden skinned Kufr ruling a realm which stretches across the world and has subjugated every race — except for the barbaric Macht.
The Macht are stuff of legends to the people of the Asurian Empire. Yes, they are viewed as a barbaric race which lives a simple life across the sea in the Harukush Mountains, but they are also seen as the most horrible, most fearsome, most lethal warriors in the world.
And this is why the Great King’s brother assembles the greatest army of Macht the world has ever seen, making them the centerpiece of a grand force he leads across the world to unseat his brother. The Kafr and their subjects introduced to the Macht way of fighting and finding they are not prepared for it.
Yet, wars are won by chance as much as force of arms, and soon the Macht find themselves in the most unenviable of positions: The fickle gods forcing them to do the unthinkable, the impossible to survive!
Grimdark at its best is a mixture of many elements. It is graphic, shocking, and horrible at times. It shows the less-than-beautiful face of humanity. Characters are sketched in numerous shades of grey. Victory might be sweet, but it is never easy, comes with a huge cost, and leaves everyone involved traumatized by the experiences they have lived through. Good people die. Bad people live. Not all good causes are quite so good as they first appear, and the bad ones aren’t always wrong. Grimdark pushes a reader past the boundary lines of modern sensibilities, forces them to confront the beastly side of mankind, and demands that they accept that all is not what it seems — even heroes, saviors, or grand crusades of righteousness.
With The Ten Thousand, Paul Kearney clearly shows that he is a master of harnessing the deep, dark passion of grimdark, integrating all these elements, and delivering an impressive story. This book a powerful narrative, overflowing with emotions, and never shying away from viewing the brutality of wars and what they make good people do to survive. Yes, it is depressing at times, bloody in spots, and makes one want to look away from the things being done. But that also its strength and its power: The Ten Thousand a grimdark that accepts what it is and embraces it.
If I wished to criticize this novel (which I don’t), the only element I would point to is its faithfulness to the ancient Greek story of the Ten Thousand. A rousing tale by itself, I admit, but if a reader is familiar with Xenophon’s Anabasis, then Kearney’s version loses many of its surprises, becoming more of a retelling than an original concept all its own. Even then, it is still an enjoyable experience, but a foreknowledge of what is about to occur does deprive it of much of its suspense and power.
The Ten Thousand is a grimdark among grimdarks, a tale filled with passion, realism, and brutality. For lovers of the genre, they need look no further than here for their next fix. For newcomers, there are few grims more accessible, fast-paced, and easy to digest than this narrative. And, for me, this novel was a reinforcement of that nagging belief that no matter how many books I read there is yet another great book out there that I haven’t found yet, because this was my first Kearney grimdark, but it will not be my last.