You don’t often find fantasy novels that do a sincere interpretation of Ancient Greece (or Rome, either), but The Macht trilogy by Paul Kearney does it better than any other I’ve ever read. If you’ve got a son who can handle an R movie, he’d probably love these books, especially the first one. It’s a guy kind of book.
The first book, The Ten Thousand, is based on Xenophon’s Anabasis, a thrilling ral-life tale of Greek mercenaries trying to escape back home when their employers loses a battle for the throne of Persia, an event Xenophon participated in. Corvus is heavily based on the Macedonian forcible unification of Greece and Kings of Morning is based on Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia. There are plenty of liberties taken and this is definitely a fantasy world, but I’ve only see hoplite warfare (a favorite subject of mine) depicted as well by Victor Davis Hanson, and in a much more technical fashion at that.
Our protagonist in The Ten Thousand, Rictus, is something of an amalgam of people who were a part of the Xenophon’s hoplite mercenary band. He’s from a recently destroyed fictional version of Sparta, Isca. This is a violent trilogy that doesn’t shy away from the brutal nature of Macht (Greek) warfare, especially when they make war upon their fellow Macht, a nigh-on seasonal occurrence. Through a series of occurrences, young Rictus is spared— likely alone—from the destruction of Isca. With nowhere to go and no skills except those of a solider, he joins the titular Ten Thousand mercenaries who are taking employment to the southeast, hired on for a war for the throne of the Asurian Empire, the trilogy’s Persia analogue.
If you know the story of Anabasis, or you’ve seen The Warriors, you know what happens. The Ten Thousand fight their way into the final clash between a would-be usurper and the High King. The usurper (historically, Cyrus), the employer of the Ten Thousand, is slain and his army routed. In real life, his forces actually won a tactical victory, but in this book they are utterly routed. The East and its wars were strange…a post for another time. The Ten Thousand alone stand their ground. They attempt to negotiate with the victors for permission to go home, but the leaders who go to speak with them are all slain and the survivors are now hunted men. Through courage, cunning, and great sacrifice, they make their way back home.
This book is not a substitute for Anabasis, as it spends a lot more time than the classic on the Macht/Greek culture and does a lot of wonderful world building, while Anabasis gets down to the drama without too much prelude. I’d almost call this an alternate reality novel rather than a fantasy novel except for one thing that is clearly magic: Antimone’s Gift. The Macht are the chosen people of the goddess of death (as you do) and as such they have lightweight magical black chest armor that conforms to the wearer’s body when he puts it on. These breastplates are called Antimone’s Gift. These are ancient relics, prizes claimed in battle or treachery, and highly valued.
The following two books follow an older, family-man Rictus who is forcibly drafted into the service of Corvus, a young conqueror with great ambitions and connections to the Ten Thousand. Corvus is where we meet this more-interesting-than-Alexander-really-was character and follow Rictus as he helps him to unify the Macht by force. This book is probably the most brutal. Rictus’ family is captured by his enemies and it is a hard read in spots.
Kings of Morning is the last of trilogy and sees Corvus leading the unified Macht to conquer the Asurian Empire. It is almost as brutal as Corvus. By almost, I mean Corvus won the brutality race in a photo finish.
I talk about the violence and cruelty, but I really do recommend these books. They’re rated R, for violence, cruelty, and language, but life at the analogous time period was rated R—and is, still, but a softer R in many places. The books are very well-researched and smart, with some great writing and wonderful dialogue. I appreciate the viscerality because it shows signs of smart research and does a great job of conveying atmosphere. The soldierly banter is wonderful and makes me miss my old life. The plots are smart and Anabasis is really underutilized in modern media, let me tell you.
The downfall of these books is that the quality gets worse as the series progresses, but the first one was so good that this is a very negligible flaw. I find that most series tend to go this way, as it’s hard to keep the momentum going. It’s true of most movie series, too (ouch, this fact does not bode well for the future of Star Wars, does it?).