If you’re a fan of A Game of Thrones on HBO and would like to read author George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series on which the show is based, but (a) you feel intimidated by the increasing length of the books (starting with 704 pages and going up to 1056 pages by book 5) or, (b) you are enjoying the show so much you don’t want to create spoilers for yourself or, (c) you don’t want to start on a book series that is not yet completed (author Martin is still working on books 6 & 7 and hints that he may require a book 8 to wrap it all up), then I have the perfect solution for you…read Irish author Paul Kearney’s Monarchies of God series instead. This 5 book fantasy series has all of the elements that make A Game of Thrones so enjoyable – a complex plot set in a medieval-era, magic-tinged world, political maneuvering, conflicts based on religious beliefs, the death of key characters, elaborate battle sequences and the heady mix of love, revenge and betrayal.
And to top it all off, Kearney’s books are very slim by modern standards of fantasy literature, with each of them being just 250 to 400 pages long. It is incredible how much detail the author has packed into so few pages and highlights the literary excesses committed by the likes of Robert Jordan (The Wheel of Time) and George R. R. Martin in this genre. In fact, I would put Mr. Kearney in the same league as Tolkien in terms of verbal economy and craftsmanship.
George R.R. Martin’s series takes place in a world which somewhat parallels our own, but with no direct or obvious correlation to any known nations or geographies. The Monarchies of God however, is geographically identical to our Earth and culturally very similar to Europe/ Central Asia in the Renaissance era.
Most of the action takes place on the continent of Normania, which is a stand-in for Europe. Normania has 5 main kingdoms and other smaller principalities. The citizens of all the kingdoms follow a common religion, which is enforced by a powerful religious order, the Ramusian Church (structured like the Catholic Church), based out of the holy city of Aekir, situated on the eastern edge of Normania. The Church has powerful representatives in each of the kingdoms and collectively these kingdoms are referred to by the Ramusians as the ‘Monarchies of God’.
To the east of Normania lies the land of the Merduks, a warlike race who follow a different religion, based on the teachings of their prophet Ahrimuz. Over time, a single warlord Aurungzeb (yes, not very original, to name him after the 17th century Mughal emperor of India) has united the kingdoms of the east and sets about threatening the borders of the Normanian kingdoms. I guess Aurungzeb is a mash-up of Genghiz Khan, Timurlane and Babar.
At the beginning of the first book Hawkwood’s Voyage, Aurungzeb’s massive Merduk host has just captured Aekir after a lengthy siege (a bit like the siege and fall of Constantinople in 1453). Most of the soldiers defending the city have been killed or captured and The High Pontiff of the Ramusian Church is also believed to be dead. Refugees are fleeing the city in terror, while the Merduk armies indulge in rape and pillage. One such refugee is Corfe Cear-Inaf, the only surviving member of Aekir’s elite troops, who has escaped the massacre and joins the refugees while also searching for his wife, who fears is among the dead. Corfe goes on to become one of the major characters in the series, while unknown to him, his wife ends up a prisoner of the Merduks and goes on to play a significant role later in the story.
Meanwhile, on the western side of the continent, in the sea-faring kingdom of Hebrion, the shrewd religious head of the Ramusian Church in Hebrion, hearing the news of the Pontiff’s death and the fall of Aekir, makes a move to become the front-runner for the election of the next Pontiff. In order to strengthen his claim, he attempts to enforce ever stricter religious edicts, including the arrest and burning at the stake of hundreds of ‘Dweomer-folk’. These are people who by birth are able to control the elements or perform spells, and who make a living in various trades, as healers or navigators by using their magical skills. Unable to openly oppose his religious head, Hebrion’s young king Abelyn looks for a way to save at least some of the Dweomer folk. Meanwhile his ambitious cousin Murad claims he has laid his hands on a long-lost captain’s log with which he can find an undiscovered continent across the Great Western Ocean. Abelyn authorizes Murad to take two ships and quietly set sail, provided he carries a couple of hundred Dweomer-folk on board. This is Abelyn’s way of saving a few of his Dweomer citizens and also managing the ambitions of the dangerous Murad, to whom he promises governorship of the western lands, should he ever find them. The ships that Murad commandeers are owned by a young captain, Richard Hawkwood, hence the name of the first book. Yes, this is starting to sound like the voyage of Christopher Columbus.
So far, this all appears to be a thinly veiled retelling and mash-up of our own history; but at this stage, the plot takes a sharp turn and suddenly you are dealing with a sea voyage that appears to have more in common with that of the ill-fated Demeter in Bram Stoker’s Dracula than anything from the 15th century adventures of Portuguese explorers.
As I mentioned earlier, at 300-400 pages, all these events take place at an explosive pace, but with no sacrifice to detail, such is Kearney’s skill as a wordsmith. In fact, many reviewers have commented on Kearney’s incredible depth of nautical knowledge as well as his understanding of pre-modern battle strategies. On top of that, there is plenty of intrigue taking place in the courts of kings, in the monasteries of the religious elite and in the barracks of armies. A couple of shocking discoveries, one religious and one marital, significantly change the course of events. And finally, there are mages and shapeshifters, engaged in their own conflicts, whose actions play a role in the final outcome.
The first four books are written as one continuous story taking place over the space of about a year. The fourth book The Second Empire ends with the Battle of Armagedir, the mother of all battles on which hinges the fate of Normania. Will the armies of Torunna, now led by General Corfe, be able to stop the Merduk army or will Torunna be the first of the Normanian kingdoms to fall? Just as one cannot predict the fate of the characters in A Game of Thrones, there are no guarantees that our favorite characters will survive here either. The fifth book Ships From the West takes place 17 years later and while initially I thought the purpose of this book was to tie up all the threads, the book actually deals with a new threat that arrives from those mysterious lands in the west, which Hawkwood discovered at the end of his voyage in Book 1. By the end of the series, many of the characters are no longer alive, nevertheless the ending is satisfactory although not unsurprisingly, also bittersweet.
I read the five books in the space of a couple of weeks, moving from one book straight to the next. By Mr. Kearney’s own admission, the fifth book ends somewhat abruptly with very little of the Tolkien-style closure that one would have hoped for. This was apparently done in order to meet a self-imposed publishing deadline and the author hopes one day to release a revised edition with an additional 100 pages to resolve some loose threads. I will be certainly looking forward to it and I hope many more readers will discover this little known but beautifully written fantasy series.