Paul Kearney,
The Second Empire
(Victor Gollancz, 2000;
Ace, 2002)

A quick synopses of Paul Kearney's The Second Empire:

Captain Hawkwood and his crew are returning from the haunted New World to a home kingdom ravaged by war. The king is still alive, but only with the aid of a wizard and a bedstead. This war is being fought by two religions who most closely match the Christians and Muslims of our world, and sort of in response, the Church is looking to increase its power base on another continent. This Church power-grabbing is worrying a guy who's not that important, because a giant werewolf is plotting to take over the world and he's one of the first victims. Yet another kingdom, Torunnan is being led by former peasant against the Prophet-following Merduk hordes, whose new queen is said former peasant's wife.

Of course, it's not nearly this simple.

It may seem some things are missing, like character names and separate battles. That's unfair to Kearney, who has created a lot of very interesting characters and details any number of battles. But the real strength of The Second Empire is in capturing the feeling of war -- the messy, confused, busy feeling of people in crisis, before the scribes and archivists have begun ordering things. Richard Hawkwood and his crewmates, the mage Bardolin and the oily noble Murad, stand out more than any of Captain Corfe's soldiers and countrymen, simply because they're given a little time to rest. The people of Torunnan and the noncombatants of the Merduk aren't given that chance. Even when there's not a full-out battle, there's political intrigue, forced marriages, a massive change in the main faiths of two people and the problem of provisions to work out. When there is a battle, even the grandest acts of individual heroism are soon overwhelmed by the sheer crush of mass violence. In such an insane background, even the most vital of characters is soon dehumanized. That's one of the tragedies of war, and few books capture its pounding depersonalization as well The Last Empire.

Part of the inhumane feel of the world comes from Kearney's impersonal narration. The societies of Torunnan and Merduk are sexist, class-based, oppressive lands. That their residents support their own culture isn't surprising, but Kearney's restraint in judging his created world is. Most authors find a character or two to voice their own modern disagreements with such harsh societies, or slip it in through the text. Kearney lets his world be as unpleasant as could be expected, with only some legitimate grumbling from peasant-turned-general Corfe about the aristocracy. The detachment that leaves characters shadows in their own play makes the world they live in feel solid and packed with inertia. Only a brief tender narration by a girl in a sacked village narrows the busy world to human confines again, and the splash of battle afterwards soon wipes that bit of heart from the reader's mind.

The one real weakness in Kearney's writing is due to his bizarre idiosyncratic spelling. People constantly become tyred, or make plans for an offencive. If these quirks of language had been more pervasive, it might have created the sense of a colloquial dialogue. If any of the odd terms were explained, it might have enriched the world's background. But the misspellings are just rare enough to be really jarring when they pop out, and to raise questions as to whether typos (there are many) are intentional. That it's a minor problem only makes it more annoying.

I put down The Second Empire feeling bruised and exhausted. Not many worlds are this real, down to the dirt under fingernails. Kearney's willingness to put drag his own characters through the mud brings the reader into the story to a harsh degree. I'm not sure it's really an enjoyable experience, but it is valuable. As an antidote for the still prevalent High Fantasy books where battle is always glorious and main characters untouched by globe-spanning strife, it's wonderful. I'll be sure and pick up the next in this series when I'm feeling disappointed by the shiny face of war in the next sword-and-sorcery tome. Until then, it's me for comfort food and a healing dose of very escapist fantasy.

[ by Sarah Meador ]
Rambles: 5 October 2002

Buy it from