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The Monarchies of God

by Paul Kearney

Book One: Hawkwood's Voyage

(Gollancz Vista, 5.99, 382 pages, paperback; first published 1995.)

Book Two: The Heretic Kings

(Gollancz Vista, 5.99, 320 pages, paperback; first UK edition 1996.)

Book Three: The Iron Wars

(Gollancz/Millennium, 5.99, 255 pages, paperback; published 2000.)

Book Four: The Second Empire

(Victor Gollancz, 5.99, 294 pages, paperback; published 10 May 2001.)

Book One: Hawkwood's Voyage

The Monarchies of God is set in a pseudo-Europe technologically and culturally on the cusp of the 15th and 16th centuries. Kearney has gone to some trouble to construct a credible alternate world that clearly mirrors our historical reality, with just enough distortion (particularly by introducing practical, reasonably powerful, reasonably subtle magic) to give it an exotic flavour. In short then, the Ramusian kingdoms (Christian), are threatened by the invading forces of the Merduks (Turks). The great city Aekir (Constantinople) has just fallen, and the Merduks are now advancing across the realm of Torunn (Hungary) towards Torunna city (Vienna). The maelstrom of battle, which Kearney realises very well indeed with brisk, clear-cut scenes of cannonade and cavalry charge, is reflected by the turmoil of politics behind the lines.

As the Torunnese fight the invaders, the other Ramusian kingdoms struggle over the succession to the Pontifical (Papal) throne. Moderates seek to prevent the accession of Himerius, a fanatical Primate, whose intolerance has already sparked a witch-burning craze in the most westerly realm, Hebrion. Power-politics, with votes traded for armies to succour the desperate Torunnese, brings Himerius to the throne he desires, only for news to reach the western kings that the former Pontiff, Macrobius, thought dead in the sack of Aekir, is in fact alive and has been brought safely into Torunn by a young officer of the Aekir garisson, Corfe.

While the Ramusian kingdoms are thus engulfed in invasion, witch-burning, conspiracy and the schism soon ignited by the rival Pontiffs, a voyage of discovery embarks from Hebrion. A small group of dweomer workers is saved from the ongoing purge by the ambitions of a scheming nobleman, Lord Murad, who conscripts Captain Richard Hawkwood to take him and his men on a trip into the distant west, where he expects to find a fabled continent, and settle it as a colony of the kingdom of Hebrion. The ship, with its mixture of noble ambition, priestly intolerance, magical subtleties and the hard, salt-water and sweat reality of a risky voyage into the unknown, becomes a microcosm of the conflicts wracking the Ramusian kingdoms as they stumble into the future, and a reflection of the conspiracies always working silently under the surface of Kearney's narrative.

This then, is a tale that brings together several of the key elements of the high renaissance period in a vivid and fast paced story. While one side of the continent falls, another reaches out across the ocean to a new world. The various kings take their sides, lining up with the two Pontiffs, choosing intolerance or moderation, rigidity or flexibility as their personal bent, military problems and desire to establish royal independence demands.

Kearney handles his characters well. There's a large cast within the confines of a 350 page book, but he sketches them clearly and distinctly, and knows how to reveal their foibles with a few phrases or lines of dialogue. Magic is perhaps less deftly treated; there is some vagueness about its precise nature, the seven disciplines into which it is formally divided being only vaguely outlined, but the balance between power and vulnerability is satisfying (wizards can be powerful, but not too powerful).

Hawkwood's Voyage can be recommended for its clarity and verve, and its author's sure grasp on his story, his characters and his craft.

Book Two: The Heretic Kings

The second book of Paul Kearney's Monarchies of God series shows an admirable maintenance of pace and intensity.

The Ramusian (ie Christian) kingdoms of Western Normannia are split by religious schism at exactly the same moment as their easternmost member, Torunna, is invaded by the infidel Merduks (Turks). Cursed with a decidedly inept king, Torunna struggles to fend off the encroaching hordes while simultaneously beating down schismatic rebels. Her fellow Ramusian kingdoms are convulsed by the religious conflict, with far-western Hebrion taking the worst of the civil strife as her king must actually campaign to fight his way back into his own capital city.

The two rival camps in the church begin drawing up their lines, hardening their dogma, and condemning each other, but under the surface older and more sinister forces are working. In the distant reaches of the Western ocean, Richard Hawkwood's ill-fated expedition has indeed found the fabled hidden continent, but they are not the first folk from Normannia to do so. Their discoveries are intricately linked to deep conspiracies in the Ramusian kingdoms; murder and worse crimes stalk the catacombs beneath the great cathedrals, and nobody's motives are entirely what they seem.

Perhaps the most interesting character to emerge in the tale so far, is the soldier Corfe. Initially a minor officer, he has fallen back and back with each defeat for the Torunnese army while steadily rising in rank. His loss of pride and of his wife in the fall of Aekir has invested him with a raw, abrupt, impatient energy, and he comes across as a well-drawn character, driven and impetuous, but still perceptive, even acute.

Kearney writes a brisk and stirring tale. There's a fine sense of balance here, between sharp military encounters and subtle conspiracies. Hidden truths about the distant past are always waiting to boil up and unsettle current quarrels, sending the story into another path, diverting characters across hundreds of miles and bending their purposes. Still, everything is credible, even compelling, and Kearney does a good job of holding the reader's attention.

Book Three: The Iron Wars

The third novel in Paul Kearney's Monarchies of God sequence is a well-handled continuation of the themes and conflicts initiated in the earlier volumes. Given its fairly short length this book could easily have been packaged under one set of covers with the preceding volume.

If there is any discernible change in style or theme it might be that the element of intrigue is more alive in this book than in the two earlier volumes. Hebrion, the westernmost of the Ramusian kingdoms, it's king near-mortally wounded and in a coma, is engulfed in scheming as his mistress, his nobles, his great officers and his fiancée, struggle to assert their power in the potential gulf of his looming demise. In the distant west, Torunna is also beset by covert interests. While the grimly driven soldier, Corfe, continues his relentless climb through the ranks of the army, his ascent and success are viewed with more and more irritation by the settled powers of the court. Facing appalling battlefield odds, he must also find the means to beat the harpies of the court off his back and avoid the resentments and meddling of his own, unhappily incompetent, king.

While blood and thunder and knives in the shadows enliven the narrative, there's still plenty of slow development happening in the wings as ancient concealed documents discovered in cathedral catacombs threaten to rock the schism-ridden Ramusian church to its foundations, and from the distant uttermost West the first hints of an elder, powerful sorcery are beginning to stir and reach out across the ocean.

Kearney is admirable for the degree to which he makes things hard for his characters. Sea voyages wreck ships and shatter crews, people suffer wounds which cripple and disfigure and don't simply get healed with a snap of magical fingers. For every military victory the Torunans win another ten thousand men and a duchy or vital fortress get decimated. On top of this there's a real solidity to the world he's constructed, it's all thoroughly realistic, and mercifully untainted by unsightly anachronisms or attitudes.

I don't think that Kearney is a great writer of Fantasy, he lacks the sweeping, creative vision that Donaldson brought to the field in his prime, and there isn't the same depth of character that Tom Hobb's brings to his novels (which are of course much longer, and with a smaller cast). But Kearney is a good writer of Fantasy, and that, unfortunately, is a rare thing to be able to say of a field that is all too obviously dominated by hacks and second-raters.

Book Four: The Second Empirecover scan

By the time you reach the fourth volume of Paul Kearney's Monarchies of God sequence, you know pretty much what to expect, a fast paced blend of military action, cut across with lethal conspiracies and desperate races to deliver vital messages...

Kearney does not disappoint. In some ways indeed, this novel is a tighter read than its three predecessors. Richard Hawkwood and his unsavoury employer Lord Murad have at last returned to Normania from the uttermost West. This helps to unify the plotlines that involve Hawkwood's trials, with the scheming of the Hebrion court, and thus simplifies the book's structure. At the same time, the dark and powerful cloud of sorcery that has accompanied Hawkwood back from the West begins to spread its influence across Normania, both in the form of ruthless murders and the attempted seduction of key characters.

Meanwhile, in the East, Corfe, now General in command of the Torunnan armies (or what's left of them), struggles to bring all his nation's power to bear against the invading Merduks, while avoiding the dragging quicksand of court cabals and resentments. Corfe remains the most intriguing and striking character in the story. As both devastating military genius, and devastated, love-lorn husband-in-mourning, his is a compelling presence. Kearney's handling of the military aspects of the novel is grittily realistic, and pays attention to points that many authors often pass over, such as the devastation suffered by a sacked town, and the sheer misery of hordes of helpless refugees driven from their homes and livelihoods.

Somewhat to my surprise, the novel actually concludes with what looks very strongly like the full resolution of one entire area of conflict (and a previously dominant one at that) though I won't spoil the experience by saying which one. With the rest of the story's struggles still going full blast, even picking up steam, it's a slight surprise to see part of its raison d'être exit stage left, so to speak, and the result feels a touch lop-sided... However, one can also see that other arenas of conflict, previously playing out in a very slow 'on-the-sidelines' fashion are getting ready to develop more generously, particularly the military situation between the intolerant Himerian faction in the church and the rebels in the kingdom of Astarac...

I rate this book as a good read, and touched with a rare note of tragedy at the end. Kearney has now sustained his tale vividly through about 1,000 pages. That's not much by Robert Jordan standards, but Kearney's story has much more pace than Jordan's work and plays off themes and historical echoes from renaissance Europe that will please the discerning reader.

Review by Simeon Shoul.

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