Book Review: The Mongoliad: Book One (The Foreworld Saga) By Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, E D deBirmingham, Joseph Brassey, Erik Bear and Cooper Moo
In the aftermath of the fall of the Roman empire in the first millennium CE the door was opened for Europe to be invaded from the East. While early leaders like Charlemagne tried to fill the vacuum with the Empire's demise, their reach didn't extend beyond the boundaries of Western Europe. The situation didn't improve with time either. First of all the cream of European soldiery were being spent in fruitless attempts to re-conquer Jerusalem after the city was retaken by Saladin and his armies. Then in the1100s the Mongol hoards came sweeping out of the Steppes of Asia conquering and pillaging everything in their path in a huge swath stretching from the Ukraine to Poland.
With the Mongol hoards threatening expansion into the West the church and secular leaders finally turnd their attention away from Crusades into the Holy Land and attempted to deal with the threat closer to home. It's against this backdrop the story told in the first instalment of a new series unfolds. The Mongoliad: Book One, published by 47 North, an Amazon Publishing imprint, had its genesis as an online co-operative effort between a collection of known and unknown writers with a shared passion for medieval weaponry and martial arts. Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and Mark Teppo are established science fiction and fantasy writers. E.D. deBirmingham and Erik Bear have written historical fiction and for a bestselling video game respectively while Joseph Brassey teaches medieval fighting techniques to members of the armed forces and Cooper Moo is an ancient weapons enthusiast. While this might seem rather an odd (if not motley crew) collection of authors, once you begin reading the fruits of their efforts you quickly forget its provenance.
While The Mongoliad is itself a trilogy, it is only the first part of the far more ambitious Foreworld Saga that will eventually take readers on a trip through the ages via the 19th century adventurer and literary translator Sir Richard F Burton and into modern times via a group of archaeologists who uncover manuscripts Burton was attempting to translate when he died. While these details aren't available to readers who pick up The Mongoliad: Book One we can only assume their pertinence to the story being told in this volume will be revealed as the saga continues.
This story begins in what appears to be an abandoned monastery deep within Mongol controlled territory in Eastern Europe. A mysterious young women has travelled a dangerous road to bring a message to a group of Christian warrior monks who have taken up residence among the ruins. While most of us are probably familiar with the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers, religious warrior orders infamous and famous from the Crusades, there were other, more obscure, but equally dedicated, military sects. The knights gathered at this monastery were all members of The Shield Brethren, or the Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae, an ancient military order with roots stretching back to a pre-Christian Norsemen brotherhood called the Skjaldbraedur. They were gathered here close to the encampment of the Mongol Kahgan, Ogedei, third son of the great Genghis Khan, in response to a challenge issued to all warriors of the West. Defeat the Kahgan's champion in a tournament and he would spare their countries the sight of the Mongol hoards attacking them.
However, we don't just see the world through the eyes of the Christian knights, as the authors take us into the world of the Mongol tribesman as well. Expansion and empire are not resting easy on the former nomadic plainsmen. Kahgan Ogedei is sinking into a pit of despair fuelled by his ever increasing consumption of wine. He has reached such a bad state that one of his brothers sends a young hunter/warrior, to Ogedei's court with explicit instructions to protect his brother from the wine he consumes. At first glance this seems like an impossible task to set for anyone, but especially for the young man chosen for the job. While a hero in battle and a great hunter Gansukh has no experience in dealing with the intrigues of life at court. In fact even being inside a building cut off from sight of the sky and hearing the wind play on the grass leaves him feeling imprisoned and trapped. Trying to figure out how to protect somebody from himself is difficult enough as it is, but when that person's word is law and to contradict him is tantamount to treason it's next to impossible.
As the book continues on readers not only move back and forth between the Mongol and Christian worlds, we also see the action through the eyes of multiple characters. While initially we meet the Christian knights via the observations of Cnan, the young messenger, as their journeys progress we are also given the perspective of one within the order, Raphael, a warrior physician. While Cnan is able to give us an outsider's objective observations and appraisals, Raphael's insights into the divisions and rivalries between the various warrior monk factions add another layer of intrigue to the story taking it beyond a simple hack and slash fantasy novel. A veteran of the Crusades Raphael has few illusions left about righteousness and those who claim to be on missions for God. The war against the Mongols is a matter of survival, and whether God's on their side or not doesn't really make any difference.
While Gansukh is able to provide us with a view of the world from a tribesman who has lived his entire life on the steppes of Asia following the traditions of his ancestors, we are guided through the intrigues of life at court by the Chinese slave assigned to instruct him how to survive in this new and dangerous environment. The instruction she offers him also serves to help us understand what is plaguing Kahgan Ogedei. So, those times when we are offered the chance to see the world through the eyes of the Kahgan, we understand why he has come to rely on wine for solace. While it's true their are ghosts of events from the past that haunt him, they're only one part of the problem.
While there might be some truth to the saying "too many cooks spoil the broth", it doesn't apply to The Mongoliad: Book One. In fact it's a distinct advantage in a book where we see the world through the eyes of such a diverse group of people. Differences in voice make each character a distinct individual while not detracting from the story's coherency or cohesion. The overall narrative actually flows far more smoothly than usual for a book covering as much ground as this one as events build upon themselves naturally and logically. While there's no indication as to who wrote which parts it ends up being irrelevant. After the first few pages you'll find yourself so wrapped up in the story you'll no longer care who the author is, you'll just want to turn the page to find out what happens next. The authors have also done a wonderful job of bringing the world they are describing to life. There is an air of verisimilitude about everything that leaves you little doubt as to the historical accuracy of their descriptions of not only life during the era described but the behaviour of the characters as well. From the descriptions of the armour worn by the knights, individual fighting styles to the various personality traits of the characters, everything rings true.
It's early days yet, being only the first book of a trilogy which is the first instalment in what promises to be an incredibly complex and involved saga, but judging by The Mongoliad: Book One The Foreworld Saga promises to be not only intelligent and well written, but a lot of fun as well. The characters are intriguing, the plots interesting and complex without being convoluted and the fighting and descriptions of battle scenes realistic and exciting while not shirking from describing the more brutal truths of the horrible things humans are capable of doing to each other. In other words this has all the characteristics of being a must read series in the making. Lets hope it can keep the pace up.
(Article first published as Book Review: The Mongoliad: Book One (The Foreworld Saga) by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, E D deBirmingham, Joseph Brassey, Erik Bear and Cooper Moo on Blogcritics.)