Kuf is a world with a civilisation in the early iron age, mostly united in a great Empire with the exception of the remote land of the Macht, a people of legendary military prowess who live in independent city-states reminiscent of ancient Greece, and who fight using weapons and tactics similar to the Greek Phalanx. Now there is civil war in the Empire between Ashurnan the Great King and Arkamenes his brother, who has amassed an army to seize the throne. And the devastating spear-head of that army is a force of 10,000 mercenaries of the Macht, brought from overseas to fight in the Empire for the first time in millennia.
So far, this could just as well be historical fiction as fantasy, apart from details of geography and the presence of two moons. Particularly since there is nothing magical or mysterious in the world of Kuf, except for The Curse of God – five thousand sets of impenetrable armour so black that it reflects no light, presented to the Macht by a deity, according to their legends. However, while the Macht appear to be human as we know them, the people of the Empire come in a far wider variety of sizes, shapes and colours than we are used to.
The story initially focuses on two young Macht, Rictus and Gasca, who enlist in the mercenary army. Other principal characters are Jason and Phiron, Macht leaders, Tiryn, the mistress-slave of Arkamenes, and General Vorus, a renegade Macht who leads the Great King's army. The viewpoint shifts between characters from scene to scene.
In many ways this is a straightforward story; there are no mysteries to be revealed, no unexpected plot twists or other major surprises. The tale of the civil war follows its own relentless logic, step by step, as the invading army fights its way across much of the Empire. The strength of the book is in its battle scenes, of which there are many. The author belongs to the gritty realism school of writing, and the fear, panic, confusion and brutality of battle are powerfully evoked, as are the campaigning problems of hunger, thirst, heat, cold, and body lice. The result is a gripping account which draws in the reader and had this reviewer shivering with the tension of the build-up to the final climactic battle.
There is much strong writing here, the only disappointment being the ending, which I found rather unsatisfying. Nevertheless The Ten Thousand is a must-read for enthusiasts of epic battle fantasies.