Sunday, August 26, 2012

Book review: "Hawkwood and the Kings" by Paul Kearney

I have encountered "Monarchies of God" series by Paul Kearney in a some review at some time ago, although I forgot most of the details. I had some vague impression of Hawkwood being a mercenary leader in Middle-Age based Europe with existence of magic. When started pumping my recommendation with historical fantasy books because I had "Hawkwood and the Kings" in my wish list, my interest somewhat dropped. But the series still had good reviews, there was some recommendation by Steven Erikson (I don't usually care about front-cover generic recommendations) and it was pretty short (only two omnibuses), I decided to give it a try.

I first planned to do two reviews, one for each books in the omnibus ("Hawkwood's Voyage" and "The Heretic Kings"), but when I started reading the second book, I realized that there is no real distinction between them - the plot goes on immediately. This is actually one book split in two (or more probable, five) chunks.

It is pretty hard to comprise the story of "Hawkwood and the Kings" in one paragraph. Even though these books are very short (416 pages for the whole omnibus), there is a lot of going on. These books are clearly based on 15th and 16th century Europe, during the Turkish Invasions and discovery of American continent. We have several unconnected plot lines viewed from different POVs that make a pretty detailed picture of the setting and the plot. But this is not a historical fiction - history is different, geography, mentality... And of course, this is the setting that contains things like magic, Thaumaturgies Guild, werewolves, homonculus... I again have to repeat that there is really much "meat" in plot for such short books.

A titular character of the first book, Richard Hawkwood, is a moderately successful sea-captain in Kingdom of Abrusio (based on Spain). He gets coerced (almost blackmailed) by a nobleman Murado to captain the voyage whose mission is to find the "West Continent" revealed in a sea-log in possession of Murado. But he doesn't know that this log reveals several prior voyages which all ended bad for those involved, and most of them included some connection to magic. To make their situation worse, King Abeley (another POV characters) forces them to pick a special cast of colonist: Dweomer folk (licensed Guild mages, herbal women, shapeshifters, soothsayers...) who recently got in problems when Ramusian Church (depicted upon Catholic Church) started a series of witch-hunts and prosecutions, most of them ending in burnings. Unofficial leader of this contingent of colonist becomes Bardoling, a capable but unassuming mage and ex-soldier, whose main wish is to protect his young associate, werewolf Griella. Young King Abeley is trying to do the most he can to protect his people, remove the yoke of Church from his government and at the same time help his fellow monarchs in the east who are being invaded by Merduks. Other characters include Corfe (deserting offices, flying from fall of Aekir after its capture by Merduks), Heria (his wife, captured by Merduks), Gollophin (mage adviser of King Abeley), Albrect (older librarian in Church capital of Chabrion, in possession of some interesting documents), Merduk Sultan and other... This is just a synopsis of the first book - I could not describe that of the second one without revealing spoilers; and anyway, as I said, these two books can be read as one.

Prime characteristic of this book, connected to its shortness, is its fast pace. There is really much going on; we have short chapters, each with few shifts of POV in between. So these books successfully grip your attention, if you are into this. At the beginning I was reminded much to Guy Gavriel Kay, especially to "The Lions of Al-Rassan" (one of my favorite books). But later differences start kicking in, and this becomes very distinctive book. I had some problems in the very beginning with warming up to this book, because it uses much of "naval talk" (I don't even want to start listing these words), and I am not into this kind of books (especially not in pirates). But as things start shifting to other focuses, I made the necessary adjustment and enjoyed the book. One of the best attributes of this book was its attention to politics - I really like this focus in books. And of course, it was not presented from just one side, so you have to weight your preferences on your own.

There are much characters in these book, too much to describe them in details. But each one is well written, with his/hers own agenda. These characters are sometimes on conflicting sides, and I really like when writer forces us to think about the sided on our own, instead preparing everything for reader by making a clear distinction on good and bad side. They are all complex, possessing multiple sides to their personality and you will not have any problem remembering who is who. But characters are also included in the biggest objection I had with Kearney's writing - and that is the lack of empathy and connection to characters. They are interesting, but hey all stay pretty remote and reader is somehow not included in their suffering. Also, one could complain about the lack of female characters in this book.

Writing is pretty good, except too much sailor-talk in several instances. It sounds like Kearney really looked into details he wrote about: sailing, guns, society... He focuses more on dialog and plot advancing than on descriptions of surrounding - but when he does, it is done properly. There is some humor in these books, arising mostly from the witticism of the characters, but the tone in overall is mostly darker. This is, I think, a book that can be enjoyed be various types of readers - they are short, but full of details; they are fast, but complex.

All in all, "Hawkwood and the Kings" is one very good book, especially if you like history-based books with lots of details and interesting plot. My biggest objection is its shortness, but I definitely plan to read and enjoy the second omnibus "Century of the Soldier".

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