A review of Corvus by Paul Kearney (Solaris, 2010) – originally published in Interzone
This is very loosely a sequel to Paul Kearney’s March of the Ten Thousand, which was a fantasy version of Xenophon’s Anabasis. The new novel is set twenty years later among the bickering city states of the Macht, and Rictus, the young hero of March has grown into a legendary mercenary commander who is beginning to feel his age and is seriously considering retirement.
However, his future plans are thrown into disarray by the arrival of Corvus (Kearney’s fantasy realization of Alexander the Great), who makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Initially Rictus goes along with him out of curiosity, but soon he comes to recognize and respect the younger man’s military and political genius. Later he is told the truth of Corvus’s parentage: a revelation that binds him even more closely to the would-be unifier of the Macht.
The main thrust of the story is the tale of Rictus’s part in helping Corvus achieve his aim of uniting the Macht under his rule. And this element of the novel is underpinned by the sheer excellence of Kearney’s description of combat and warfare. This is no straightforward glorification of violence. Rather the brilliance of the description serves to highlight the sheer brutality of Hellenistic-era warfare.
Kearney’s characterization is as strong as his description. As a result, the reader comes to sympathize with characters on both sides of the conflict, which in my view greatly adds to the believability of the plot. Having said that, I felt that Rictus seemed a bit too heroic at times. Some of his narrow escapes from death are frankly unbelievable. One in particular, from which he recovers in matter of weeks, would put any normal modern person in intensive care and probably leave them permanently crippled (and I don’t believe the author’s implied explanation that his magical breastplate could have partially protected him from the kind of injuries he should have sustained in that mishap).
There is also a major subplot recounting the disaster that befalls Rictus’s family as a result of his support for Corvus. I found this element of the novel less enjoyable mainly because it felt rather predictable, but also because it could be read as reinforcing the old patriarchal myth of male dominance and the need for women to be protected by strong men.
I also have a quibble about Kearney’s naming policy. Corvus is just about acceptable, though knowing that it meant ‘crow’ gave me misleading expectations about Corvus’s character. But what possessed him to burden his hero with the name Rictus? Frankly it is an even worse choice of name than Guy Gavriel Kay’s choice of Aileron for one of his characters!
Corvus is definitely swords without sorcery. The only unearthly element is the apparently magical armour that has come down to some of the warriors of the Macht from time out of mind. A gift of the goddess? A remnant of some former high-tech civilization? And yet it clearly is historical fantasy of the subtle kind we have come to expect from the likes of Guy Gavriel Kay.
Kearney has, it seems, entered quite faithfully into the early Hellenistic thought world, giving us a vivid and horrific picture of Hellenistic warfare in fantasy trappings. That certainly has the benefit of helping to transport the reader into another culture. But it has the downside of tacitly accepting the negative aspects of that culture, particularly its patriarchy and the perennial myth of redemptive violence.
But, my quibbles and philosophical doubts aside, this is an excellent read. Don’t be put off by the fact that it is a sequel, it works perfectly well on its own. If you are looking for a gritty, action-packed novel that does not skimp on characterization, you need look no further. And once you’ve read this one, you will surely want to work your way through Kearney’s earlier novels.