On the world of Kuf, the Macht are a mystery, a seldom-seen people of extraordinary ferocity and discipline whose prowess on the battlefield is the stuff of legend. For centuries they have remained within the remote fastnesses of the Harukush Mountains. In the world beyond, the teeming races and peoples of Kuf have been united within the bounds of the Asurian Empire, which rules the known world, and is invincible. The Great King of Asuria can call up whole nations to the battlefield. His word is law. But now the Great King’s brother means to take the throne by force, and in order to do so he has sought out the legend. He hires ten thousand mercenary warriors of the Macht, and leads them into the heart of the Empire.
(The Ten Thousand, Solaris Books, 2008)
There is an honourable tradition in fantasy literature o f“historical borrowing”, taking events, characters and concepts from the past and applying them to an imaginary world. Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, for example, drew much of their inspiration and motifs from ancient and medieval history (Conan himself was a “Cimmerian” and Howard's fictional kingdom of Kush derived from the classical name for Nubia) and writers as diverse as Guy Gavriel Kay, Brian Aldiss, David Gemmell and George R.R Martin have used historical parallels in their work to a greater or lesser extent. Kay mined the seams of Byzantium and Reconquesta Spain for, respectively, The Sarantine Mosaic duology (1998 - 2000) and The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995), Aldiss drew upon Renaissance Italy for The Malacia Tapestry (1976), David Gemmell upon, amongst others, Roman Britain, the Highland Clearances and pre-Alexander Macedon – Ghost King (1998), Ironhand's Daughter (1995) and The Lion of Macedon (1990) – and George R.R Martin upon the Wars of the Roses for his Song of Ice and Fire series, beginning with A Game of Thrones (1996).
Ballymena-born Paul Kearney's Macht Trilogy – The Ten Thousand (2008), Corvus (2010) and Kings of Morning (2012) – also uses this tradition, taking Ancient Greece as its template, in particular the battle of Cunaxa and its aftermath, the rise of Alexander the Great and his subsequent conquest of the Persian Empire.
A fantasy retelling of Xenophon's Anabasis (370 BCE), The Ten Thousand is “a brilliant study of warfare and how individuals formulate a sense of honour, as well as being compulsively readable” (Eric Brown, The Guardian, 2008) which introduces us to the world of Kuf, home to both human and other humanoid races, and specifically to the warlike Macht.
The story of The Ten Thousand is basically the story of the Anabasis. In 401 BCE, ten thousand mercenaries, mostly Greek, were hired by Cyrus the Younger in order to wrest the Persian throne from his brother Artaxerxes II. When the armies of the two brothers clashed at the battle of Cunaxa, Cyrus was killed and the Greeks found themselves on the losing side and in enemy territory, some 1,500 miles from home. When their commanders were betrayed and executed by Artaxerxes, the mercenary army simply elected new leaders and commenced the epic return home, finally reaching the sea in 399.
Here Kearney substitutes Macht for Greek and Kefren for Persian, but leaves the overarching historical narrative more or less intact, freeing himself to concentrate on the characters, both human and otherwise, who populate his novel.
And it is here, as well as in his vivid, visceral descriptions of battle, that The Ten Thousand succeeds brilliantly.
The crash of the battle lines meeting, a sound to make the hearer flinch. It carried clear down the valley, and close on that unholy clash there came the following roar of close-quarter battle. The ten thousand Macht slammed into forty thousand Kefren like some force out of nature. In the rear of the Kefren left the archers loosed another volley, twenty thousand arrows overshooting to pepper the ground behind the Macht army. Before them, the ranks of their spearmen were shoved bodily backwards, pressing in on each other. Vorus could see the glittering aichmes of the Macht darting forward and back at their bloody work all along the line, like teeth in some great machine, whilst the men in the rear ranks set their shields in the back of the man in front, dug their heels into the soft ground, and pushed. The Kefren phalanx staggered under that pressure, as a man’s stomach will fold in on the strike of a fist. The battle line was simultaneously chopped to pieces and pushed in on itself. Vorus found the breath clicking in his throat. It had been a long time. He had forgotten what his people looked like in battle, and what savage efficiency they brought to war. (The Ten Thousand)
The one character central to the Macht trilogy is Rictus of Isca and the greater part of his life is charted over the course of the novels – from a city-less young man turned mercenary in The Ten Thousand to a legendary figure in Corvus and ultimately all-but forgotten in a changing world in Kings of Morning. It is Rictus who provides the emotional link between each novel, if not always the principal narrative point of view, and the changes in both his life and personality reflect the changes that happen to Kuf itself in the wake of Corvus and his rise to power.
By the sea, Rictus had been born, and now it was by the sea that he would die.
He had thrown away his shield and sat on a tussock of yellow marram grass, with the cold grey sand between his toes and a blinding white lace of foam from the incoming tide blazing bright as snow in his eyes.
If he lifted his head there was real snow to be seen also, on the shoulders of Mouth Panjaeos to the west. Eternal snow, in whose drifts the god Gaenion had his forge, and had hammered out the hearts of stars.
As good a place as any to make an end. (The Ten Thousand)
“. . . To have been the Second of Rictus of Isca, that counts for a lot in this world.” He hesitated. “I do envy you, though.”
“Envy me what? Rictus asked. . .
“What you saw, in your youth. The places you marched, the world you wandered across. You were part of a legend, Rictus, and you saw sights few of the Macht have ever imagined. The land beyond the sea, and the Empire upon it. For all of us it is nothing more than a story, or the words in a song. But you were there. You fought at Kunaksa. You survived the charge of the Great King's cavalry, and the long march home. I would give anything to have been part of that.” (Corvus)
He thought their departure from the hall went unnoticed, but Ardashir and Druze ambushed him as he and Kurun were making their way down the passageway beyond.
“Would you leave without a farewell, brother?” Ardashir asked, and there were vine-leaves in his hair and a sadness in his smile.
“There is no need for soldiers to say goodbye,” Rictus told him. “In the end, we will all meet again in the same place.”
“Hell,” Druze said with his dark grin. . .
“He wants you to stay – he’s as much as begged you to,” Ardashir said gravely.
“I am of no further use to man nor beast, Ardashir. I will not stay here to sit and drool in front of a fire, to be wheeled out on great occasions. And besides, the climate does not suit me. . . I have a yearning to see my own mountains again, brothers. It seems to me that a man near the end of his life often feels most comfortable where he started it. . . “(Kings Of Morning)
The shattering heat of those endless days on the Kunaksa hills, the stench of the bodies. The shrieking agonies of the maimed horses. And the faces of those who had shared it with him. Gasca, dead at Irunshahr, not much more than an overgrown boy. Jason, whom he had loved like a brother, who had come through it all only to be knifed in a petty brawl in Sinon, within sound of the sea.
The sea. How he had loved it, in his youth. And he remembered the remnants of the Ten Thousand shouting out in joy at the sight of it. That moment, that bright flash of delight was carved in stone within his heart. (Kings Of Morning)
Corvus, the second book of the trilogy, expands the world of the Macht further and introduces Kearney's alternate Alexander:
It is twenty-three years since a Macht army fought its way home from the heart of the Asurian Empire. The man who came to lead that army, Rictus, is now a hard-bitten mercenary captain, middle-aged and tired. He wants nothing more than to lay down his spear and become the farmer that his father was. But fate has different ideas. A young war-leader has risen to challenge the order of things in the very heartlands of the Macht. A solider of genius, he takes city after city, and reigns over them as king. What is more, he has heard of the legendary leader of The Ten Thousand. His name is Corvus, and the rumours say that he is not even fully human. He means to make himself absolute ruler of all the Macht. And he wants Rictus to help him. Corvus, Solaris Books, 2010)
Here, and in the subsequent Kings of Morning, Kearney plays more loosely with history, embracing and enhancing certain elements of Alexander's rise to power over Greece while discounting others. His Corvus/Alexander is a mysterious, driven figure, both sinister and charming and, like his historical counterpart, capable of commanding great devotion from his troops.
And it is not simply with Corvus that Kearney draws historical parallels for his characters: Rictus and Jason in The Ten Thousand, represent aspects of Xenophon himself, Karnos of Machran in Corvus a more (eventually) heroic version of the Athenian orator and statesman Demothenes and the Kefren Ardashir, (Corvus and Kings of Morning) a parallel to Hephaestion, Alexander's closest comrade.
And here again, Kearney's strength as a storyteller of battle and war is on full display:
A staccato hammering as the broadheads struck bronze, the individual impacts merging to form a hellish, explosive din of metal on metal.
Scores of men went down. The line of advancing shields buckled, faltered, the ranks merging, breaking, gaps appearing up and down, men tripping over bodies, men screaming, cursing, shouting orders.
And moments later the second volley hit them.
It was like watching a vast animal staggered by the wind. Some men were still advancing, others had halted and were trying to lift the heavy shields up to counter this unlooked-for hail of death. Others were standing in place with the black shafts buried in their limbs, tugging on them, looking to left and right, shouting in fear and fury. Centurions were seizing the irresolute, thumping helmed heads with their fists, moving forward out of the mass of stalled spearmen, urging them on.
A third volley.
The ground was thick with the dead and the wounded. These soldiers were small farmers, tradesmen, family men. There were fathers and sons on the field, brothers, uncles. Some of the untouched spearmen were dropping their arms to help relatives, neighbours. Hundreds fell back, but a core came on regardless of casualties. They were Macht, after all. . .
. . . An enormous crash. He was brought to a full stop, piling into the man in front. Behind him, the weight of the three men of the file crushed him, the cuirass fighting the pressure. He thought he would faint. He could see faces - helmed men facing the wrong way – Phobos -they were facing him! And then the adder-strikes of spearheads. He saw an aichme come lancing through the ranks in front of him to bury itself in a man’s head and then snap off. The man was borne along by the press for a few minutes, and then slid out of sight. The file closed the gaps, the pressure unrelenting.
This is it, Karnos thought. This is what the stories are for, what the poetry is about. I am here in the middle of it at last.
The pressure and the fear emptied his bladder. . . (Corvus)
The third and final book of the trilogy, Kings of Morning, takes its inspiration from Alexander's conquest of the Persian Empire:
For the first time in recorded history, the ferocious city-states of the Macht now acknowledge a single man as their overlord. Corvus, the strange and brilliant boy-general, is now High King, having united his people in a fearsome, bloody series of battles and sieges. He is not yet thirty years old. A generation ago, ten thousand of the Macht marched into the heart of the ancient Asurian Empire, and fought their way back out again, passing into legend. Corvus's father was one of those who undertook that march, and his most trusted general, Rictus, was leader of those ten thousand. But he intends to do more. The preparations will take years, but when they are complete, Corvus will lead an invasion the like of which the world of Kuf has never seen. Under him, the Macht will undertake nothing less than the overthrow of the entire Asurian Empire. (Kings of Morning, Solaris, 2012)
Here, however, the emphasis is less on the Macht – the initial acts of the novel focusing on Kurun, a slave in the imperial city of Ashur and how he is drawn into a conspiracy, mutilated and flees in the service of royal siblings Roshana and Rakhar.
The imperial splendor of Ashur is beautifully captured in passages which echo the descriptions of Gormenghast in Mervyn Peake's masterly Titus Groan novels:
Imperial Ashur, greatest city of the world. The last of the spring breezes which swept cool and blue from the Magron Mountains to the west had sunk into the drying earth of the vast Oskus valley. Now the first true heat of summer was upon the city, and the sun glinted in painful brilliance off the polished gold tiles plating the ziggurat of Bel.
The dust was rising in the streets, and the striped canopies of traders and merchants were lowered against the growing heat of the year. Mot and Bel had finished their struggle for one more season; the rains had come and gone, the glittering grid of irrigation channels that spangled the earth for pasangs all around the tall city walls were gurgling and alive with frogs, which the local farmers brought into the city in baskets, as a seasonal delicacy. . .
. . . The King's Steps soared up, a stairway to the sky. They were for the high caste, civil servants, diplomats, men high in the King’s service. And they called for fit men, because there were three thousand steps, each wide as a ledge. The Great King rode his horse to the summit of the ziggurat, but for everyone else the climb had to be made on foot.
At their base the Royal Honai stood, like golden statues resplendent in polished bronze, with silver pomegranates on the butts of their spears. There were ten thousand of these tall Kefren, the finest soldiers in the Empire, the bodyguard of the Lord himself. (Kings of Morning)
There are other influences at work in the Macht Trilogy, perhaps most overtly that of the late David Gemmell – Kearney's narrative is similarly muscular and his characters both morally ambiguous yet undeniably heroic – while the influence of Michael Moorcock can be seen in the Kefren themselves, who bear something of a resemblance to the Melniboneans of Moorcock's Elric saga or the Vadragh of his Corum novels.
It should be stressed, however, that the Macht Trilogy is not simply Historical Fiction in fancy dress. History may have provided the initial inspiration, but Kearney creates a wholly believable secondary world, populated by characters both human and inhuman who are engaging and fully realized and if the emphasis in the novels is on battle and warfare, the characters he creates are no less important to their success.
Similarly, his use of Ancient Greece as an historical background, marks the Macht Trilogy from countless other heroic fantasy novels where pseudo-medieval Europe has dominated the genre, particularly since the publication of J.R.R Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings (1954). But he also eschews too many fantastic elements, there is little magic in Kearney's world of Kuf and what there is is limited to the mysterious black armour – the Curse of God – which some of the Macht warriors wear, and to the pantheon of imaginary gods who (unseen) rule their fate. This is “Low Fantasy” at its finest.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Paul Kearney's Macht belongs to a tradition of heroic fantasy where character, as much as action, is valued and where fact, fiction and imagination freely intertwine.
Born in Ballymena in 1967, Kearney studied Anglo-Saxon, Middle English and Old Norse at Oxford University before spending several years in Denmark and the United States before returning to Northern Ireland.
His early novels, The Way To Babylon (1992), A Different Kingdom (1993) and Riding the Unicorn (1994) received good reviews, but it was the Monarchies of God series (1995 – 2002) which brought him to prominence. This was followed by The Sea Beggars series (2004 – 2006) and by the Macht Trilogy.
Paul Kearney Bibliography:
The Way to Babylon (1992)
A Different Kingdom (1993)
Riding the Unicorn (1994)
Primeval: The Lost Island (2008)
The Wolf in the Attic (2016)
Calgar's Siege (2016)
The Monarchies of God
Hawkwood's Voyage (1995)
The Heretic Kings (1996)
The Iron Wars (1999)
The Second Empire (2000)
Ships from the West (2002)
The Sea Beggars
The Mark of Ran (2004)
This Forsaken Earth (2006)
The Ten Thousand (2008)
Kings of Morning (2012)