I’m going to start by saying I didn’t really enjoy this book. There were several elements in it that I found to be tedious, trite or plain unbelievable. This wasn’t the book for me – and I’ll outline why below – but others might enjoy it. What follows are my personal opinions based on taste alone.
I wish I could go into detail with a synopsis, but honestly, there were way too many names for me to remember, and a look at the Wikipedia page reveals another solid block of text that I don’t have the patience anymore to sift through.
This was the first major stumbling block in the book. I have no doubt that Kearney has put a lot of time and effort into the building of his world, its history and its people. Each chapter begins with a lengthy introduction to a new region, its geography, its townships, its factions, its history, its people and the closer setting. While normally this would be a very welcome inclusion in a new fantasy world, because the book has three major character arcs and two or three minor ones, and many of these characters are in a constant state of moving, it becomes an incredibly daunting task for a reader to remember all of the names and histories of the people and places. What’s more, most of the description of the setting is unnecessary to understanding the story, and so the reader is being asked to either sit through a lecture on Kearney’s world, or to remember a large amount of useless information.
Another disappointment for me was the misnomer of the title. Hawkwood’s Voyage actually contains very little voyage. The ship itself doesn’t set sail until the 12th chapter, and then you don’t hear from it again until the 15th. What takes up a much larger portion of the story are politics and intrigue. An advancing Merduk army is tearing through the western world. The golden city of Aekir has been destroyed, and the army shows no signs of slowing. Astoundingly, the church of the west feels this is a minor event, and chooses to expend its vast influence and military resources on burning civilians who practice any form of magic, or are of foreign birth. The reasons for this purge are never satisfactorily explained. As far as the rulers of the western kingdoms go, in the end, half of them side with the church out of fear of excommunication –though again, I didn’t get a very deep sense of the power of the church from this book. Kearney tells us that they have power, but I didn’t really feel it in the pages.
The voyage part of the book is the royal expedition to the new world, carrying magic using refugees, soldiers and a mysterious monster on board. There’s not much I can say about it without giving away what is supposed to be the main plot, so I’ll leave it at that.
Then there is the arc of the story which focuses on Corfe, a young man in the western army who is forced to desert at the fall of Aekir, and who is then reabsorbed into the military at the Ormann Dyke, which seems to be the last stronghold of the western defenses against the Merduk army. I wanted to like Corfe. He’s usually the kind of character I’m interested most in, but between a deadpan empathy in the first few chapters in which he is introduced and no on stage character development, he was just another marionette in the box, by the end of the book.
Character development suffers heavily under the weight of world development in this book. I feel that in many cases, the space used to give the reader a history or geography lesson could have been better used to show the characters as they grow on the page, instead of asking the reader come to their own conclusions as to who the characters are becoming. After the 15th chapter especially, the story takes on a peculiar habit of recapping. Because there are three major character arcs, the book must switch between them at every chapter, however, in lieu of the lengthy scene descriptions which are no longer necessary by the middle of the book, Kearney chooses to summarize the last X amount of days since the reader last saw the characters of these arcs. The result of this is that the reader does not get to see the characters as they grow and so their actions seem, at times, to be completely without reason. Their emotions feel flat and unbelievable, and on the whole, none of the characters have the ability to pull in reader empathy. I feel that Kearney might have served his story better if he had simply made each of the character arcs into their own book, instead of mashing them together over five books.
As I note above, I couldn’t feel for any of the characters in the book. Hawkwood, the title character, is almost nonexistent for a large portion of the book. As the ship’s captain, and a foreigner with a foreign crew, he has a moment of short-lived outrage when his crew are detained and arrested – one is even shot in front of him. Naturally he goes directly to a magistrate to lodge a complaint and get this sorted out. Except that he doesn’t. What he does instead is spend five days with Jemilla, a loose-legged noblewoman and widow, over whom he laments that his wife is barren and his only hope for a child was lost when Jamilla had an abortion. Hawkwood is a passably more interesting and believable character once he is finally on the ocean, but his infrequent time on stage, and the lack of character development gave me very little reason to like him.
Kearney depicts women in a very unflattering light. There are three major female characters and one minor one. The first is the aforementioned Jamilla who, as a widowed noblewoman, we have every reason to believe is set for a comfortable life. She explains that she sleeps around because it is her only asset and the reader is given the impression that she has some kind of feelings for Hawkwood, though it’s not very clear. She’s also in bed with the king Abeleyn, though this, it seems, she does only so Hawkwood’s child -which she is pregnant with- will have a royal daddy. The last we see of Jamilla, she has become something of a cold viper woman– a bit of a surprise considering in the previous chapters she occupies at best she’s manipulative and promiscuous.
Another misused female character is Greilla (I can’t actually find her name anywhere at the moment, so if it’s misspelled, my apologies). A werewolf, and a young teen, Greilla is a take-no-shit-from-no-one character. When the slimy nobleman Murad takes a fancy to her and announces his intentions to bed her, by all accounts, she’s violently against the idea – until the first time he rapes her. After that, she’s “in love with him, in her own way”. It’s tacitly explained that this is because of how wild and rough he is with her. I call bullshit all throughout this burning wreck of a narrative. In the end, she is killed protecting Murad and I vomit a little in my mouth.
Heria is Corfe’s wife. He spends his first emotionless thoughts hoping she died in the attack on Aekir so that she couldn’t be raped by the Merduks. Of course, she isn’t killed, and when she’s next heard of, it’s for her to give a two page description of how she was raped by her captors on the way to Ostrabar, where she is handed over to the sultan. We learn through unnecessary dialogue that she becomes his favorite concubine, and at the end, he announces his intentions to make her his wife. There is no character in her, only a plot device.
The final, minor female character is Hawkwood’s wife. We’re told she’s not worth loving or caring about because she is barren, and all she does is cry and she makes no sense, but that isn’t any different than many of the other characters in the book.
The only other character that I cared about was Bardolin, a mage and an ex-soldier who accompanied Greilla on the voyage to the new world as a sort of guardian. He is the only character who shows any sort of deep grief at losing a loved one, and the only character who is given any sort of in scene development. However, he devolves into something of an ovary-bewitched man because of Greilla, and just loses his appeal by the end of the book.
This was a book that, despite its short length, seemed like it took way too long to read. Lack of character development sinks this ship, and the absence of resolution in any of the plot arcs is the kraken that devours it on the way down. I find myself unable to pull up an interest to read the next four books in this series. If you’re a reader who doesn’t much care about the characters in a story; if you like intense, graphic battle scenes and lengthy tours of fantasy worlds, then this is your book. However, if you’re like me in that you like to see a story told with the growth of, and interaction between characters, Hawkwood’s Voyage is one to be avoided.