After reading the first installment in Paul Kearney’s Monarchies of God quintuplet, Hawkwood’s Voyage (1995), its difficult to believe the books is not better known. With its strong parallels to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and R. Scott Bakker’s The Prince of Nothing series, one would expect fans to come running to its plethora of character based action, magic, and adventure—all within the scope of epic, gritty fantasy. Perhaps this review will do something to set fans of the genre on the path away from manipulative authors like Joe Abercrombie and treacle factories like Patrick Rothfuss.
Hawkwood’s Voyage is the relatively subdued introduction to Kearney’s five book series—hard to believe given that all manner of action, conflicts, and tension fill its pages. Obviously playing off a European-esque geography, the author is none to subtle building the setting. In the west, a land fragmented into individual kingdoms living under one god is attacked by a horde of fanatics from the east living under the rule of their one god. Roughly the Renaissance era, swords and gunpowder are used to fight in the resulting conflicts, the church trying to leverage its power every other step of the way.
The western continent is called Normannia and its religion, Ramusia. Monarchies, electorates, and kingdoms fill its boundaries. To the east lie the Merduks, who in following their prophet Ahrimuz, attack eastward and gain land, slaves, and riches in the process. Kearney locating major characters in each of the regions at play (e.g. the bigger kingdoms, the religious centers, defending cities, and in Merduk lands), the narrative spreads itself across all the continents, ensuring pace is brisk, inter-relationships are established, and the effects of conflict are felt on all sides.
Corfe is a soldier on the run after the Merduks storm the great city Aekir. Abelyn is the king of Hebrion, a kingdom which undergoes a massive purge of heretics by the Church after the fall of Aekir—much to his chagrin. Shah Khahan is the calm, logical Merduk general leading the attacks, and who receives more than vainglorious commands from his Emperor which he is loathe to follow. Bardolin is an ageing wizard whose apprentice is burned at the pyre in Hebron’s purge and is now in hiding from the Church’s inquisition. Hawkwood is a great but flawed sea captain who returns to his home port to discover the overthrow of Aekir. Commissioned by the king, he and the noble Murad embark on a mission to the west for whom none know the fate. And there are several more important characters which feature in the story, fleshing out the story as needed.
Magic? Yes, it exists—not in gouts, but in strong, measured quantities. Wizards control homunculus familiars who act as eyes and ears to their prying in larger affairs. Werewolves, which are actually shapeshifters, prowl the streets in human form trying to fit in, reeking havoc when their blood rises. All manner of fantastical creatures likewise rise from the seas, making the titular voyage an adventure worth envisioning as well as reading.
Flaws? The novel has several, most notable Kearney’s lack of polished syntax. While serving to color the characters in broad strokes and move the narrative at a good clip, there remain numerous irregular sentences and unnatural voices, as well as anachronistic words which don’t have the right feel for the story (“besotted” is actually used), not to mention the occasional contradictory action by a character to fit a scene. Likewise, feminists would have a heyday working over the novel. Kearney does not treat his female characters well. It can be argued that, like Bakker, the author is attempting to show how difficult it was for woman of the time, but given the number of gratuitous sex scenes which exist only to “spice” the narrative, it doesn’t seem there are any loftier ambitions than just appealing to readers’ base compulsions.
In the end, Hawkwood’s Voyage is the grand introduction to Monarchies of God that sets all the events in motion. (It is the longest novel in the series.) An obvious analog to Europe, events in the novel cover a continent and involve all manner of monarchial politics, religious affairs akin to the Catholic church, wizards, eastern incursions from religious fanatics, as well as life as a mariner. Kearney seeming to draw from personal experience, the latter is detailed particularly well and would be a treat for those who like their fantasy nautical. Given the large number of similarities to the afore-mentioned series, fans of Martin, Bakker, Brian Ruckley, Steven Erikson, even Guy Gavriel Kay (though Kay’s prose is far more polished) would enjoy the series. For fanatics of epic fantasy, it’s a farce that Kearney’s name does not appear in the same authorial discussions.
(For those curious whether the series as a whole is worth investing in, if you liked Hawkwood's Voyage, it's safe to say you will like the four books which follow. Never going to set the literary world on fire, Kearney nevertheless maintains a consistency even some heralded as "great" (looking at you GRRM) have not been able to accomplish. The pace is forever kept brisk and the conclusion draws all the threads together into a satisfying conclusion. If you are truly serious, then I would recommend buying the two omnibus editions that have been published by Solaris called Hawkwood and the Kings, which contains Hawkwood’s Voyage and The Heretic Kings, and The Century of the Soldier, which contains The Iron Wars, The Second Empire, and Ships from the West. Given the relatively short nature of the individual books, roughly 250-300 pages each--a breath of fresh air compared to the length of many modern epic fantasy books--this format proved agreeable, particularly the desire to have the next book on hand when completing the previous.)