Monday, 30 September 2013

The brutality of ancient war vividly brought to life in The Macht Series

From The Week of September 23, 2013

Of the many agents of creation and destruction that pervade our world, none are as potent, or as consequential, as war. It spawns new technologies while ruining existing economies, it fosters new bonds of brotherhood while destroying traditional ties of family, and it forges entirely new nations while grinding the old into the sands of history. It is humanity's sword of change. And so it is not at all surprising that it has been valorized by our governments and our culture, shaped into a badge of pride that the victorious can hold over the unfortunate. But in all these films and speeches, novels and rallying cries, do we ever truly see war's true face? In the fabled charges and the legendary retreats, do we feel the abysmal heat of its stare, the rotten stench of its breath, the cold callousness of its cheek? We might think so until we read Paul Kearney. And then we understand that we don't know war at all.

Tucked away in the mountainous north of a sprawling empire, the Macht are, to outsiders, a strange and barbarous people. Divided into only loosely affiliated city states, bound together by race and custom, they are largely content to till their fields and endure the vicious snows cast down upon them by their ill-tempered gods. But when roused to war, they are fearsome creatures, spearmen are the first rate who are so well-drilled in the ways of the phalanx that few forces have ever bested them.

Having heard of their prowess through legend, Arkamenes, brother to the great king of the Asurian empire, hires 10,000 of their finest mercenaries, the first such assembly of spears in living memory. Deploying them as the backbone of an invasion force, the rebel prince seeks to overthrow a brother he loathes and seat himself on the great throne, where upon he can rid himself of the Macht who ensured his victory. But when fortune goes against him, the war he'd so carefully planned spins out of control and creates lasting consequences not only for the peaceful, if brutal, Asuria but for the fiercely independent Macht as well. Lives and destinies will be written in blood and no one will escape the reckoning.

A spellbinding re-imagination of the Anabasis of Xenophon, the Macht Series is a read as captivating as it is brutal. Mr. Kearney, who rightfully earned acclaim with his Monarchies of God, returns here to militaristic fantasy, carving out a new and bloody chapter that won't soon be forgotten. With characters as dark as their deeds, the author builds from the existing histories to confront the very limits of loyalty and human endurance, leaving us with a newly constructed temple to the gods of war that both dazzles and terrifies.

The Macht Series is notable for its mercilessness, but it is unquestionably at its best when confronting the true price of war. It is the foundation of The Macht, and yet, with every sacked town and murderous skirmish, with every enslaved soldier and every thrust spear, Mr. Kearney makes clear his scorn for battle, the corrosive ease of it, the cruel simplicity. Every moment of violent glory is matched with the screams of the dying and the rape of the innocent, as we watch peaceful and prosperous lands overturned for pride, for vainglory and for foolishness, none of which can be forgiven. The cost is so immense that it ought to be forbidden practice, a weapon too terrible to be wielded. But how would anyone enforce such a ban without using war to do so?

The Macht Series, though excellent, is by no means for the faint of heart. Mr. Kearney is as unsubtle with his narratives as he is ruthless with his characters, shoving them through an uncaring meat grinder that only reluctantly spits out the living. And yet, this dark savagery, this hellish heat, is balanced with such an acute sense of sadness and tradition that every encounter fills the reader with an enduring sense of tragedy and dismay that will leave few unmoved. Here's hoping there are more works to come in a well-paced, brilliantly conceived and dizzyingly executed series from this undeservedly little-known author. (4/5 Stars)

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