Monday, 1 November 1999

Paul Kearney: Hawkwood's Voyage (1995)

Edition: Gollancz, 1995
Review number: 377

It's impossible to tell today what exactly the connection was between the fall of Constantinople, the heyday of the Spanish Inquisition, the voyages of discovery and the Reformation. All these events took place in a relatively short time, and some are definitely connected (one of the spurs to the voyages of exploration was the closing of trade routes to the East by the Turks).

Kearney has taken these events and made them the basis of his fantasy series, The Kingdoms of God. The setting is clearly based on fifteenth century Europe (with, for example, the gun and handgun beginning to become important in warfare) and equivalents of these events occur (I suspect that the Reformation is left for a later book, but the way is paved for it here.) Geography and history have been transformed, but much of the background is recognisably the real world. The names used are allusive rather than direct appropriations. (The holy city, lost to the eastern Marduks at the beginning of the novel, is named Aekir rather than Constantinople; but it stands on the Ostian River, and Ostier was the port of Rome at the mouth of the Tiber, and Constantinople was the new Rome.)

The book begins with the fall of Aekir, a city which is like a combination of Rome, Jerusalem and Constantinople in the real medieval world. The destruction of the city and the enslavement of its inhabitants are vividly described - the standard of the writing is high throughout the novel - making a point of the horrors that could accompany medieval warfare without lingering too long on them.

Instead of despondency and desperation, or a heroic crusade, the fall of Aekir prompts the hardline elements of the church to begin a purge in the kingdoms of the West of those suspected of heresy (or even tolerance) or witchcraft. In the busy trading nation of Hebrion, melting pot of cultures and races, this is proving a disaster for the kingdom. Abeleyn, king of Hebrion, organises a voyage of discovery and colonisation, to hunt for the fabled lands over the Western Sea; only by sending away all those who practise magic can he hope to save them.

The strongest aspect of the novel is the evocation of background, particularly of the fanatical Inceptine order of monks, led by men wanting to use that unbending fanaticism to serve their own ambition. The bigotry of religion is likely to have a vivid meaning to anyone of any sensitivity who has lived in Northern Ireland, and I suspect that this is what has powered Kearney's impressive writing.

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