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Hawkwood's Voyage by Paul Kearney (The Monarchies of God #1)

Review by Larry Homer

Lately there's been this new fantasy series catching my eye at Borders. Author's name Paul Kearney, series title The Monarchies of God, at least four volumes in paperback are already available. Publishing data provided inside indicates that these books were first copyrighted and published in the U.K. several years ago, and have only recently made the trans-Atlantic jump to invade my native land. Not an impressive invasion, however. After reading the first book, I don't feel that Kearney's books pose any grave threat to the positions of my favorite North American writers of epic fantasy (nor my favorite British ones, for that matter).

This is one of those stories where the author was attracted by certain aspects of Medieval European/Middle Eastern history, and has decided to set his story in a region which bears some strong resemblances to the real deal in certain ways, without slavishly copying the geographical features (or historical rulers of the era) in detail. This gives him certain advantages, such as not needing to have wars and crusades and other power struggles turn out the way our history books say they did. Hence he maintains the element of surprise in the way the plot develops.

Shown on the map at the front of the book is a continent (or the western part of a larger landmass, as Europe might be termed one end of Eurasia) populated by nations that all share a common religious heritage and have names that look vaguely European, one way or another. They call themselves the Fimbrian nations. East of them, you have another area of various Sultanates whose inhabitants have names that look vaguely Arabic (or in at least one case, Persian) and share a religion that is considered the major rival to the western one. Instead of followers of Christ or Mohammed, we have followers of Saint Ramusio and the Prophet Ahrimuz, but the cultures appear to be fair parallels to their historical models. The Ramusians have a High Pontiff who has lesser Prelates, bishops, priests, monks, and so forth at his beck and call. The issue of the proper separation of powers between Church and State is a thorny one, as usual. The Church likes to burn heretics and magic-users at the stake, which has been known to happen in Roman Catholic history as well. (Note: I can't recall any scriptures in the New Testament where Jesus specifically commanded his followers to do that, and I strongly suspect that Kearney means for us to assume that Saint Ramusio never specified that this was the only proper fate for heretical sinners either. In each case, somewhere along the line, someone has taken it upon himself to creatively interpret the words of a great teacher in a bloodthirsty fashion.)

There is an ancient record allegedly detailing a voyage made long, long ago to the legendary Western Continent, far beyond the great ocean west of the known world. Lord Murad, cousin of the King of Hebrion, persuades his royal cousin to sponsor an expedition to explore and colonize the area described in the old record by a long-dead sea captain. Murad ends up pressuing Captain Richard Hawkwood to agree to transport the expedition in two of his own ships. As the text on the back of the book suggests, we are in some ways dealing with a loose parallel to the epic voyage of Christoper Columbus in 1492, with the potential to open up a New World to be settled and explored and exploited.

So two major situations in this story are the expedition to the unknown west, and the invading army (hundreds of thousands of men) attacking the "Fimbrian Kingdoms" (as the local version of Christian Europe calls itself) from the East. The eastern invasion has more people worried, particularly as the story starts when the city of Aekir is already falling. Aekir seems to be the Constantinople-equivalent in this world: The great city that resisted Moslem sieges and attacks for centuries before it finally fell to the Ottoman Turks and opened up a gateway to other parts of Eastern Europe for them.

So far, so good - at least potentially. The explorations and wars of our own 15th Century are as good a source of inspiration as any for an epic fantasy series, in the hands of a really capable storyteller. Unfortunately, Kearney qualifies as a really mediocre storyteller. This book is 376 pages long and those pages failed to captivate me. Some of them were interesting, but the overall impact failed to leave me breathlessly anticipating the next installment. There are several reasons for that, so let's examine them.

There's something wrong with a fantasy epic when I can finish its first volume and still be waiting impatiently for a heroic protagonist to make himself known to me. If the writing was done in a particularly appealing style, I could endure the lack of a clear hero. If the characters were strongly drawn and kept me very interested in what would happen to them next, I could overlook the fact that none of them were especially heroic in their natures. If the plot were beautifully intricate and kept me busy trying to guess how lots of little clues and puzzles would fit together into a grand solution, as in some mystery novels, I could tolerate the absence of a role model among the cast of characters. But since none of those circumstances apply in this case, I keep looking around for at least one character I can relate to as a heroic struggler in this story, someone I can root for in good times and bad as he stays at the center of action (in at least one plot thread) . . . and I don't find him. Let me guide you through the first few chapters of the book, to illustrate my problem.

The Prologue is set more than a century before the rest of the book, so it wouldn't really be fair to expect it to introduce a hero who will stick with us for the remainder of the series. (Which is good, because it doesn't do anything of the sort - it only lays a foundation for the idea that travelling to the Western Continent and back is fraught with peril and will probably kill everybody on the ship that tries to do it.) Move on to Chapter 1.

The first few paragraphs of Chapter 1 seem to be provided by an omniscient narrator describing the sack of the formerly great city of Aekir by those nasty Marduk hordes. No sign of a hero yet.

The next few pages focus on the viewpoint of Corfe, a young officer in the defending army inside Aekir, who's lived to see everything falling apart and hordes of civilians fleeing the city in terror while soldiers die (or desert) in the face of the enemy. He's worried sick about his wife. We can feel sorry for him, but he hasn't done anything to make him more heroic than any other soldier in the middle of a battle. He continues to pop up throughout the story, interacting with people and fighting in other battle scenes, but I can't say he distinguishes himself as heroic and/or fascinating. It is quite possible that he is meant for bigger and better things in later volumes, but that doesn't do me any good in this one.

The next few pages (final scene of Chapter 1) give us the viewpoint of Aurungzeb the Golden, Sultan of Ostrabar (one of the seven Marduk sultanates at the eastern end of the map) who is safely at home while his army is sacking Aekir for him. He seems to be a bloodthirsty villainous type; not the hero of the story. Gee, we still haven't met the title character yet - do you think he'll be the one I'm waiting for?

Chapter 2: We finally meet Captain Richard Hawkwood as he is sailing his trusty caravel, the Grace of God, into its home port: Abrusio, capital of Hebrion. Unfortunately, we don't learn much about his moral character and ideals (if any) in this first appearance. Stay tuned.

The second part of this chapter introduces King Abeleyn of Hebrion, who was recently persuaded by the local leader of the Ramusian Church, the Prelate Himerius, to cosign a document ordering all sorts of undesirables and troublemakers (heretics, foreigners not from any of the five great Ramusian Kingdoms, witches, etc.) rounded up and shoved into dungeons to await trial. Abeleyn now regrets what he did when he sees how broadly Himerius has his thugs (the Knights Militant) interpreting that edict, and how many people are being burned at the stake or soon will be. Does this mean Abeleyn publicly announces that he made a regrettable mistake and is hereby cancelling his endorsement of the edict? Of course not! But he feels bad about it, and surely that counts for something? (Not enough to make me regard him as a hero, though.)

Chapter 3: Bardolin the mage is in his house in Abrusio, anticipating that soldiers will come tomorrow morning to arrest him. However, through his magic he becomes aware of a shifter (what you and I might call a werewolf) who is being hunted through the streets by soldiers at this moment. With great exertion and some risk, he manages to use magic to help the shifter escape from the armed men and come join Bardolin in his house for the night. This works out well, since instead of being arrested and burned in the near future, they are recruited (later in the book) for the expedition to search for the Western Continent.

Going to all that trouble to help a total stranger was a nice thing for Bardolin to do. Heroic, even. Having done it, however, he apparently had exhausted his Heroic Deeds Quota for at least the remainder of the book (one or two later uses of magic in the name of simple self-preservation on a dangerous voyage don't really count as "heroic"), and he didn't get enough time in the spotlight in later chapters to make me feel he was intended as one of the main protagonists. He's more of a supporting character, as it turns out - his magic and advice on magical matters is available when absolutely needed by other people.

Chapter 4: The first part shows us more of Corfe, the psychologically battered officer we met earlier (okay, at least we can feel sorry for him in his present condition), who is in a lousy state of mind as he retreats from Aekir ahead of the enemy army, and the second part introduces us to Lord Murad, who has uncovered some records suggesting the existence of a Western Continent on the far side of the ocean, and wants his cousin (King Abeleyn) to finance an expedition of exploration and colonization, with Murad in charge, naturally.

Murad evidently has initiative and imagination and courage, which is admirable. On the other hand, we will later see him select two adolescent girls from the colonists to be his personal servants, which includes sharing his bed when he feels like it. He doesn't offer money and ask for volunteers; he simply selects them. After all, he's a lord and they are commoners, so his wishes come first. So much for any chance of my seeing him as heroic. I have this strange prejudice against rape, which is what his behavior amounts to, even if (as we gather) the girls didn't scream and struggle when each one's time came (but then, what good would it do? The soldiers on this expedition are loyal to Lord Murad).

With four chapters down and twenty-one left, that covers most of the major characters. Of them all, at first glance, the best possibilities for a heroic role seem to be Corfe, Hawkwood, and Abeleyn. But Corfe and Abeleyn fail to shine to any notable extent in their appearances in the remainder of the book (although they probably will do better in later ones), and that leaves us with high hopes for the title character (you would think being named in the title was a good sign, right?).

Without giving away any real surprises (such as what happens on Hawkwood's voyage once he sets sail again) I can tell you that before we are a quarter of the way through this book, we will have learned the following things about Captain Richard Hawkwood:

1. He let his father arrange a marriage between Richard and a young Hebrionese noblewoman by misleading her family into thinking that the Hawkwoods were minor nobility in their native land of Gabrion (they aren't, but their monarch once awarded them a coat of arms. I think that's something like being knighted, which is not a hereditary title but does seem to put you a bare step above the utter commoners).

2. He used the dowry money to build his first ship, and later used the profits from it to build another. Occasionally he has to remind himself that his wife really has contributed something to the family's prosperity, since he basically regards her as useless.

3. He spends as much time as possible away from home on long voyages (successful moneymaking ones, we gather).

4. Even when he's in port, he spends as little time as possible with his wife. Which is arguably just as well, given his general lack of sensitivity when he does speak to her. (He also lies to her, for reasons we will see in the next point.)

5. When in the city, he spends more time with his mistress than with his wife. He knows she has affairs with other men when he's away on trips, but he doesn't seem to care.

6. When he's on one of those long trading voyages, he occasionally satisfies his sexual urges with the ship's cabin boy. He's embarrassed by that fact, and doesn't talk about it, but that hasn't stopped him from doing it more than once before this novel starts (for what it's worth, it appears to have been consensual activity - on the other hand, at one point it tells us the boy's voice is just starting to change, which gives you an idea of his age).

You can call me an old-fashioned prude if you like, but I don't think I'm going to regard Richard Hawkwood as being heroic material anytime soon.

While Hawkwood is making his big voyage in the later part of the book, we are treated to the occasional battle scene, strategy conference, political intriguing, signs of impending religious schism, etc., back home in the Fimbrian Kingdoms. It all seems reasonable enough, but fails to captivate me.

So in this first book of a series (I don't know how long it's going to be) we have no captivating style, no truly fascinating three-dimensional characters (at least not to my tastes), no brilliantly original and/or brilliantly complicated plot to admire, and a serious lack of heroism. There is also a general (though perhaps not quite total) lack of real romantic activity, as opposed to just going through the motions of satisfying sexual lust. And the story ends on a classic cliffhanger, as Hawkwood's ship is finally approaching the Western Continent (after various nasty occurrences on the high seas which I won't ruin for you). Overall, I'd have to say this storytelling effort was brilliantly successful if we assume that Kearney's objective was to write a mediocre first installment to an overly long series which has bits of sex and violence and other signs of "realism" in a feeble effort to spice things up. If you prefer to think he was aiming for something a bit higher than "generic long-winded uninspiring medieval fantasy epic", then I'm afraid he didn't make it.

Rating: 3 out of 5, right in the mediocre middle of the bell curve. Only recommended if you're so addicted to this sort of thing that you need another dose in a hurry and nothing better is available that you haven't read yet.

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