So, I didn’t really have a long-term plan when I started this series on underrated or under-appreciated fantasy, only that I wanted to encourage discussion of some books I’ve really enjoyed. The subject of this latest post came up in a recent Reddit thread, and it certainly fits the bill. It’s a bit older than both previous series, and has slightly better reviews, but it’s still one of those that I think deserves a bit more attention than it gets.
I found the first book of Paul Kearney’s The Monarchies of God, like so many books, when it caught my on the shelves of my favourite secondhand bookshop. Spine-out, it was the title first – the name Hawkwood was familiar to me from medieval history, and piqued my curiosity (as did Voyage, to be fair). The cover was a certainly eye-catching, too, and the story on the back sounded like something I could get into. But I’m not sure I bought it right away – I’m a cautious sort – and in doing some research on-line I might have stumbled across mixed reviews and decided against it.
Of course, when a book that you’ve never heard about has several copies available at the secondhand bookshop, there’s often a reason for it, so I was prepared for mixed reviews. And even though I often get better results judging a book by its cover than its reviews or hype – in fact, that could be the moral of this series of posts – it’s still not easy to take a plunge into the unknown. However, because sometimes the first impression of a book won’t leave me alone, I obviously eventually picked it up – and was captivated.
Now, I won’t say I fell in love with this book or the series, unlike the previous series of Hidden Gems. In fact, I haven’t actually finished it yet. But anyone that knows me will realise that persisting as far as book four out of five means that I must really like something about the series, and I will definitely finish it someday.
So, why am I writing a review of a series that I haven’t actually finished and I didn’t fall head-over-heels for? I guess sometimes you just find a series that, though somewhat flawed, really gets its teeth into you and won’t let go. And I would describe certainly describe this series as tenacious.
Published in 2001, it’s one of those series bridging the previous era of fantasy to the modern. It’s got the grit, the realism, the crushing of expectations that we’ve come to expect from GRRM and the like, but it’s also got the remnants of idealism and good-vs-evil from the classic era. It’s a sweeping story with high stakes, high peril, and disparate plot threads in far-flung locations. Frankly, it’s not my usual fare!
It does another thing that sometimes bothers me, in that the world is a very close analogue of our own. A lot of the geography and history parallels our own, with a few twists and simplifications. Luckily, it focuses on an era that I’ve not read a lot about, and presents a compelling alternate experience of some of the themes and conflicts.
And did I mention it has great attention to historical detail, especially in ships and military matters? The battles are vivid enough to smell the blood and gunpowder (yes, black powder fantasy alert!), and when at sea you can hear the cry of the gulls, and feel the roll of the deck and the salt breeze in your hair. The ring of authenticity here helps put this above other similar series, for me, at least.
Add in characters that are as flawed, devious, determined, honourable, competent, desperate, brave, despicable as anyone could want, and just enough light at the end of the tunnel to keep you hoping while it knocks you about, and you’ve got something special. Not flawless, but still a treasure.
Anyway, despite it containing any number of elements that I wouldn’t have normally chosen to read about (including werewolves), somehow it just connected to me in a way many other series haven’t. I’m still very much looking forward to that final episode, when I get around to it.
It’ll probably wait a while yet, and I’m savouring the anticipation.