The history of Europe is a fascinating one and the 15th century is a particularly interesting time, what with the Voyages of Discovery, the development of gunpowder and the expansionist march of the Ottoman Empire. Yet it was still a time when superstition held sway, when the fastest thing man could use to travel was a horse, when great swathes of the continent were still uninhabited, littered with the ruins of fallen Empires.
Paul Kearney has set this fantasy novel, the first of several, on the cusp of mediaevality and modernity, hurling two power blocs against each other and giving us the tales of the ordinary folk who are caught up in the middle of things.
I came across this via Amazon’s “People who have bought this book also bought…” and I’m very glad I did. It was written in 1995, a year before A Game of Thrones was published so Kearney was in at the forefront of the gritty, morally ambiguous, hard as nails combat genre. He’s also a keen sailor and that comes across in his chapters concerning the eponymous sea voyage.
A brief outline of the set-up – an abandoned ship is found, its crew dead or missing and something horrible in the hold. In the captain’s cabin is a rutter and log that hints at a western continent unknown by the civilisations known as the Monarchies of God. Meanwhile, the magic-using peoples, persecuted by the Church are seeking escape and a young, free-thinking King realises that he can kill two birds with one stone. Before you can say Columbus With Spells, two ships have been chartered and filled with mages, dweomer-folk and a shifter – this world’s version of a lycanthrope.
Meanwhile to the east, the vast armies of the Merduks, (resprayed Ottomans) are marching to crush the infidels, having already captured Aekir, the Constantinople of this world. Once they’ve got that under their belt, they’re heading west – unless the armies of the Monarchies of God can stop them. And they’re too busy trying to work out a way of getting the too-keen-on-burning-heretics Church off their backs.
I must admit that for the first 100 pages or so, I was getting used to Kearney’s chop-and-change style of switching viewpoints; there are quite a few different plot strands but they’re needed because, rather in the fashion of journalists being embedded with the US and UK armies, his characters are right there in the forefront of the action. And there’s a lot of action to cover. Even the politics, which can sometimes make my eyes glaze over in other works, don’t have that effect in this one. The battle scenes really come alive, with changes of focus from the strategic to the personal exactly when needed. He also knows precisely when to switch characters in a way that gives the reader just enough to make them want to get back to that strand again.
Constructed to cover several books, Kearney is taking his time in developing the plot strands but even though he has to break off at some point, he manages the suspense in such a way that my reaction at the end of this volume was definitely not “Meh”. I’ll be checking out the second book in the series “The Heretic Kings” soon.