A Song of Price and Empire: Kings of Morning by Paul Kearney

War. War has changed.

But then, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Isn’t that what they say?

Kings of Morning is the third and final volume of the saga of the Macht, which began with The Ten Thousand in 2008 and continued, albeit on a smaller scale, in Corvus, two years later. The series has been hugely acclaimed to date for great writing, awesome action, and a wonderful weave of historical fact and phalanx fantasy, and if in commercial terms it has not found the foothold certain other military fantasy sagas have, then that is on our heads – assuredly not the author’s.

If anything, Northern Irish author Paul Kearney has gone from strength to strength in the years since Steven Erikson described his last completed work, the five volumes of The Monarchies of God – collected now into two mighty omnibus editions – as “simply the best fantasy series I’ve read in years and years.” Here’s hoping Erikson is still paying attention, because all told, the tall tale of the Macht is more impressive yet. It’s tighter, tougher, and on the whole more touching. Fit to reduce grown men to quivering fits of emotion by its bittersweet conclusion, and make no mistake: “We are at the end of things here. The finish of everything we have known.” The stakes couldn’t be higher, the prize – an empire – could hardly be grander, and this endeavour will take a toll every cent as expensive as all the jewels in Asuria. When all is said and done, there won’t be a dry eye in the house.

But we were talking about war, weren’t we?

The incredible conflict chronicled in Kings of Morning has its roots in book one of this terrific trilogy, when in the employ of the Great King’s covetous brother, ten thousand Macht mercenaries marched into – and ultimately out of – the alien empire aforementioned. Though they lost, they left a legend in their wake, and at the very centre of it: Rictus. One man who led many.

One old man now, thirty-odd years hence. When we caught up with this hoary soldier in Corvus, he had attempted to settle down… to set aside his spear, and all thoughts of war. “But every time Rictus had tried to […] forswear the scarlet, the image of his own wife swamped the joy in the place. Poor, wretched Aise, the only woman Rictus had ever loved, which had ended in torment and suicide. Because of him.”

You needn’t have read The Ten Thousand to keep up with Kings of Morning. It was a remarkably standalone tale in its time, and even several sequels on, it is set superlatively apart; a unforgettable legend unto itself. But now there is another myth in the making. Another story of glory, forged from the ashen embers of the tragic tale of ten thousand men who came to the kingdom of the Kufr, but could not quite conquer it. And it began in book two. As such, Kings of Morning is certainly the least self-contained volume of the Macht saga. In many senses it’s the concluding volume of a duology and a trilogy, so I’m afraid some recollection of the events recorded in Corvus, and to a lesser extent The Ten Thousand, is a pre-requisite. But even if you have to read two other novels to pave the way for Kings of Morning, know this: it’s worth it.

In any event, Kearney’s novels are somewhat short by epic fantasy standards, and the gap left by this lack of recapping is not simply put out to pasture. On the contrary, the author takes full advantage of his newfound freedom, immeasurably broadening the scope of this heretofore humble saga at the same time as he brings the whole hellish thing to a bloody, breathtaking head.

At the outset of Kings of Morning, Corvus has waged war on the Macht, and won. With Rictus at his side, unable or unwilling to stay away, he has done the impossible: he has made of this fearsome but fragmented folk a single, stupendous fighting force. Incredibly, he’s only just begun, and he’s a young man yet. Now he has his sights on the entire Asurian Empire… on usurping the throne of the Great King who held off the old legend. And he could just do it, too. So sayeth Rictus’ only real friend, Fornyx:

He said he would take Machran, and he did. He said he would be King, and he was. Now he says he will be Great King, and I want to be there to see that day, Rictus. He has us all now, caught in the fire of his dreams. We can no more turn away than the moth can leave the flame. For some it is power, riches – the chance to be something approaching a king. For others, like me, well […] I just want to see how it turns out.

However, in an ingenious inversion of The Ten Thousand, Kings of Morning begins on the other side of the divide. Not with the Macht, as they march into death or glory – or both – but with the Kufr; with the Great King Ashurnan, his conniving wife Orsana, and their three children, Rahksar, Roshana and Kouros, who are of course at odds with one another over the very diadem Corvus aims to take. Only some 125 pages later does Kearney give us a glimpse of the invading army readers have become intimately familiar with, and even then, we are as often with the ostensible enemy as we are in amongst Corvus’ colossal company, mired in the osthimos of war.

For a time it feels strange, this sudden, if not utterly unsurprising shift in perspective – and at the beginning of the end, no less – but Kearney is canny enough to understand that the impact of the behemothic last battle Kings of Morning builds inexorably towards will be all the more keenly felt, whichever way things tip, if readers come to care about the individuals it is destined to affect. After all, to paraphrase one of our generation’s great thinkers, the death of one is a tragedy, whereas the death of many tens of thousands is just a statistic.

And so, though a major note resounds throughout, it is in the minor key that Kings of Morning succeeds most meaningfully. Its poignancy resolves through character rather than narrative, through individuals as opposed to armies, and though Kearney has little left to say about that stalwart survivor Rictus – the sole throughline from The Ten Thousand to this masterful last clash – Corvus’ story is very far from over, whilst a handful of other, equally absorbing arcs have hardly started.

Kings of Morning, then, is a triumphant finale, even if it ends in abject defeat, as it must for one party or the other. It is a gripping history of war, with warts and all, and a story about stories told so terribly well that it should stand as an enduring testament to the talents of its measured teller. It is finally as fine and fitting a conclusion to this best-in-class military fantasy saga as I could have imagined, complete with a beautiful denouement which brings the trilogy full circle. One can only hope a few more people notice than have in the past, because Paul Kearney is clearly one of the genre’s greatest standard-bearers, and he has never – ever – been better.

Niall Alexander reviews speculative fiction of all shapes and sizes and varieties for Tor.com, Strange HorizonsStarburst Magazine and The Science Fiction Foundation. He also keeps an unapologetically bookish blog over at The Speculative Scotsman, where he recently reviewed the other two volumes of the Macht saga. And hey, he Tweets too… or tries to.


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