Corvus is set in a fictional world heavily influenced by Ancient Greece and follows the rise to power of a character loosely based on Alexander the Great. It follows the author's previous novel, The Ten Thousand (2008), and although each novel is a self contained story, the two books share a protagonist. Rictus of Isca, leader of a group of world-renowned mercenaries, a feared and respected foe in battle, begins Corvus by returning home, for the first time in years, to his wife and children. Tired of life on campaign, Ritctus ponders hanging up his red cape for good when his plans are interrupted by the arrival of Corvus, a young general whose ambition is nothing short of ruling the known the world. Corvus leaves Rictus no choice but to join him, along with his mercenaries, and the rest of the book is spent following Corvus's quest.
Corvus is a strange novel in that it's clearly the work of a skilled and experienced writer, but it is as beautifully crafted in some ways as it is incredibly flawed in others. The book has two great strengths for which the author deserves unqualified praise. The first is the depth, nuance, and care with which all aspects of military life are rendered. From weapons to strategy meetings to soldiers' rations to armor to actual depictions of battle, the book is very well researched and the details are introduced and integrated seamlessly into the prose. Kearney makes the reader feel like they're standing by the fire on a cold winter night, surrounded by friends and comrades, exhausted from days of marching, gritting their teeth because soon they'll have to step out into the cold to take up sentry duty. During battle scenes, the reader is taken by the hand and walked through every crucial moment, through the exhilaration and suffering and heat and horror and uncertainty, making it impossible not to be swept up and feel part of the action.
Additionally, Kearney manages to make his obviously extensive knowledge of combat tactics and military history fascinating in the context of the book. His descriptions never feel excessive and manage to strike a perfect balance between educating the reader about the world he's created and not getting bogged down in irrelevant detail. The prose is efficient and purposeful; the author's command of pacing is enviable. Each scene, each character motivation is given just enough room to breathe, gather weight, and is then used for maximum impact, skillfully and precisely. Rictus goes from being a soldier pondering retirement to someone coerced into Corvus's army to a general who's proven himself in battle with speed and precision. Scenes of mundane life at a military camp, for example, are used both to illuminate Rictus's status as a veteran soldier, establish the mechanics and rules of Kearney's universe, and to characterize Rictus's relationship with his old subordinates and new colleagues. For a semi-historical fantasy novel, the smooth maneuvering of exposition, action and character development is impressive.
The main weakness of the novel, however, is the socio-political aspect of its worldbuilding. Throughout the book I was never sure whether the author wanted me to root for Corvus the invader or see him as a problematic figure. Much is made of Corvus's desire to rule singlehandedly over "free" cities that until that point had been governed by a council of local nobles, but the book never explains whether Corvus's rule would be any better or worse for his would-be subjects. What, ultimately, would be won or lost if Corvus loses one of the crucial battles and his army is disbanded? The book never provides an answer. Given these nonexistent stakes, the reader is likely to find it difficult to care about the goal of the overall campaign despite the enjoyable strategy and fight scenes.
Similarly, the character arcs are oversimplified and predictable. A man and a woman who bicker constantly are obviously in love and are fated for marriage. Rictus's eldest daughter falls in love with a young man because he saves her from a violent attacker. Corvus sees Rictus as a father figure and Rictus's second in command plays the role of Rictus's adopted son. All of these relationships lack any real tension and are extremely predictable (and in the case of the heterosexual romances play out like something from a Hollywood romcom). This feels particularly wasteful because the complexities of war and conflicting moral codes the characters must navigate (Rictus essentially fights against his own people on Corvus's orders) provide ample fodder for character development and personal drama. Unfortunately the book contents itself with serviceable but unmemorable character arcs and relationships.
Finally, the novel's treatment of the social norms of the period falls even flatter. All the main characters are slave owners, but slavery is treated as an unfortunate, somewhat embarrassing circumstance. It's easily negated by slave owners being nice to their slaves and slaves being happy to serve their masters, instead of being a defining social-economical institution that affects every aspect of the characters' lives. The same problem befalls the treatment of gender roles and sexuality. One almost gets the sense that the author intended the book to talk of "simpler" times, when men were men and women were women. There's an obvious attempt to make women as assertive and self sufficient as possible, but they are ultimately confined to traditional, "feminine" roles, such as providing emotional support and being victimized. The men are similarly confined to "masculine" roles, where even the most cowardly among them rise above their nature to become great and noble warriors.
This is especially disappointing because, of all times and places, the rise to power of Alexander the Great is a fantastic venue for exploring notions of masculinity and warfare. But in Corvus, not only are the male characters only interested in women and vice versa, but homosexuality seems to have been erased from the universe entirely. There is no trace of it anywhere in the culture described. Needless to say, Corvus doesn't get his own Hephaestion. Considering the real world culture the book is based on, where sexual relationships between men—often men in the military—were not only accepted but expected, this exclusion seems odd, to say the least.
The cost of this oversimplification is best exemplified in scenes where the subject of rape comes up. In this universe rape is—of course—something that can only happen to women at the hands of men (men can't be victims of it and women can't be perpetrators). The male characters the author describes are divided into two categories. The first is made up of men who literally think of nothing but how to rape women all day long, the second is made up of men who think rape is the worst thing on the face of the Earth, and would offer to sacrifice their lives at the mere thought of it happening to a slave woman they've never met. This depiction is as empty of nuance as the author's understanding of the day to day hardships of soldiering is filled with it.
Kearney is obviously a skilled writer whose mastery of plot, prose, and exposition is enviable, but the emotional depth of his work and his ability to depict the social fabric of his societies is severely lacking. Corvus is a good novel for military history and adventure fiction enthusiasts, but will be disappointing to those more interested in thorough worldbuilding and solid characterization.
Marina Berlin (firstname.lastname@example.org) holds a degree in Film, Sociology, East Asian Studies, and several other subjects that make her resume seem completely made up. She's fluent in four languages and can order a stiff drink in a dozen more. In her spare time she enjoys writing articles, reviews, and short stories as well as fawning over other people's cats.
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