Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Mongoliad



Rating: 3 stars
Length: Solidly on the long side (434 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: April 24, 2012 from 47North (after being released in a serialized format at http://www.mongoliad.com/ )
Premise: In the year 1241, the Mongols are gathering to attack Europe. A small group of knights has gathered among other warriors to meet the Mongol challenge of combat in the arena. When they are joined by a lone messenger, they decide to launch a desperate assassination mission into the heart of enemy territory. The land ahead of them is full of dangers from all sides, even from within their little group.
Warnings: gore, implied rape, fairly graphic descriptions of executions and massacres
Recommendation: If alternate history and excellent weapons research are your thing, give this one a try. It can be a little slow and oddly paced, though, so it's best if you're willing to be patient with it or read the chapters split into sets of odd-numbered and even-numbered to follow each character group in a more coherent way.

What gives this one weight:

The Mongoliad is thoughtfully composed, covering the thirteenth century from nicely varied points of view. The broad framework of religious orders of knights is familiar, but the narrative also covers the inside of the Mongol horde and empire, focusing less on the raiding warriors and more on the center of civilization at Karkorum. The ever-expanding pool of characters can feel unfocused (more on that later), but it has the advantage of displaying how each faction, or person within that faction, has a different set of priorities-- if affairs go well for one character, things will often collapse for another. It sounds simple, and like the way of the world, but some of the best character interactions take place between Mongols, which catches the reader up in the interesting bind of wanting the Mongol characters to prosper because they're fascinating people while also wanting their civilization to crumble so that all of Europe won't be conquered, pillaged, and put to the sword.

The story splits to cover two main casts and few stray offshoots who seem likely to be important in future volumes. The Knights of the Virgin Defender are a chaste religious order, drawn together in order to meet a mysterious challenge from the Khans: if Christendom's champions can defeat the Mongol champions, they claim, the horde will spare Europe. No one is quite ready to believe this claim, but it might buy the armies of Europe time to assemble, build fortifications, and establish supply lines-- if every mile is a struggle and the Mongols have to extend their supply lines for hundreds or thousands of miles, they might give up and turn back rather than spread themselves too thin. The other story thread follows Gansukh, a young warrior who has been sent to curtail the Khagan's drinking. He is impatient with an assignment that leaves him far from sword and saddle, but learning to survive and gain the Khagan's respect. His tutor in this field is Lian, a Chinese slave who is determined to teach him rather than allow herself to be seduced. The two of them, together with the Khagan Ogedei himself, struggle to stay standing amid the intrigue and danger that dominates life in the royal city of Karkorum.

Both threads, while full of action and manipulation, take the time to reflect on respect, honor, justice, and the best way to preserve life as each culture knows it. This pool of authors resists the temptation to demonize an entire group, and instead play with loyalty to tradition in different ways. The knights are concerned with protecting the innocent, so they struggle when they can't save everyone with so many civilians who are already starving or in the path of an oncoming attack. People die around them, their comrades are dying, and so they have to sink more firmly into the traditions of battle, since those are the only constants in this war. The Mongols have a certain respect for their subordinates, but it's based more in respect and safety being earned through great tasks or obedience in battle, with a far lower general regard for life. Passion and light and civilization thrive among the Mongols, but they're tinged with a sharper edge-- this is a culture of warriors, barely removed from the saddle even if they live in the great city, and that makes them quicker to anger and readier to be brutal. At the same time, this is their strength, and people living in the city and trying to hold court, to organize a civilization that won't be entirely on the move, start to feel divorced from themselves and the tradition they want to protect, which casts a soft identity crisis over their whole group. This struggle isn't entirely articulated, but that conflict of interest makes for some of the best material in the book.

Perhaps the most vivid aspect of The Mongoliad is the battle sequences. That's not entirely surprising, given that almost all of the main characters are warriors or have lived on the fringes of war for years,but the depth of research absolutely shows. When any character picks up a sword or aims a bow, it's obvious that the author of that segment has handled the weapon in question or consulted closely with someone who has. One arena battle even breaks down the advantages of armor types and features half-swording (holding the hilt of a sword with one hand and holding the blade with the other gauntleted hand to attack at close range), which you almost never see in fiction; it was excellently detailed and avoided the ridiculously improbable flying kicks or back-flips that are all too common to long fight scenes in this genre. The realism in fighting blends well into the clarity of its aftermath, from the smoldering rubble of conquered cities to the piles of rotting corpses in the streets. It's grim, certainly, but in a way that works with the rest of the books.

The red pen:

Some of the characters really are great, to the point that it's hard to pin down one protagonist instead of following an ensemble cast-- it's interesting that in a book so heavily dominated by chases and battles, two of the best characters are navigating their way through delicate court situations. Others....don't work quite so well. The Knights of the Virgin Defender as interesting as a conceptual group, but they're introduced in the first chapter and don't display much of anything resembling a personality until almost of a quarter of the way through the book. It's easy to label them as the leader, the good tracker, the alchemist, but they exist mostly as a clump of names-- the cynical take is that many of them are introduced because deaths in the party mean Serious Business, so lots of them are going to need to die on their way to the quest objective. Excessive knights outside the core group of essential ones need to exist so that plenty can die in glorious battle before the central few are really impacted. I don't think that's the goal, per se, but the sheer numbers mean that there's time to focus on a small handful of the characters while barely remembering who the rest of them are from scene to scene.

Part of this may just be the hazard of getting seven authors to collaborate on one book, since they won't all be living in the characters' heads equally, but for the most part it seems like different sets of characters don't fit well together. This isn't really helped by the way new points of view keep cropping up halfway or more than halfway through the book. For example, when the arena fights finally start, we meet the Livonian knights, who are apparently a rival order or sorts but not actually a threat, and then awkward plot arcs keep shifting that perception. In one chapter they're trying to intercept people's mail, in another they're trying to rob shield-maidens, then they're revealed to have theoretically not existed for years...it seems likely that they'll be important in future books, but in this one they do very little but generate drama and more questions that tangle the narrative just when other character arcs are speeding up and generating more energy. Seeing more and more characters may add to the complexity of the world, but it drains the momentum of existing arcs and makes it harder track details with more scattered information in the way.

This method of clustering means that it's harder to show reactions from these characters, so it tends to fall into over-explaining what they're feeling and why from the perspective of a third party, which is just awkward. After one of the knights dies in battle, Cnán spends several pages going on about how they realize that things are serious and that they might all die far from home. The point has already hit home, but talking about it for so long just makes her look like a poor observer who hasn't noticed this mood earlier while the knights look like idiots who hadn't grasped that they would be risking their lives even though they've all been doing so for years. Other incidents linger on this sort of thing in detail as well, hammering home points that would be better left as subtle hints to come together later. This holds especially true for flashbacks as well-- Ogedei remembers several poignant scenes with his father Genghis or the brothers who have so thoroughly shaped his life, but they become more heavy-handed over the course of the book. Hearing him say once that he misses the open steppe and feels less like himself out of the saddle is moving, but hearing variations on that over and over again as he becomes more drunk and less coherent drains the color from the scenes.

On the whole, the concept flows; it's easy to be drawn into the scope of this struggle, to understand that any character arc could alter the fate of this alternate world. It's also targeted in a very different way from most fantasy; it's not about saving the world from evil, but rather about trying to preserve traditions and ways of life on both sides. Unfortunately, those stakes are sometimes conveyed with excessive detail or slowly-paced plot arcs that introduce themselves in awkward places, so it's hard to sustain a steady flow of interest. The book has promise, but I suspect that it worked better in its original series format, or if all the books are read back-to-back. There's so much good stuff here, but in this format it's neither a smooth series introduction nor a solid stand-alone novel.

Prospects: This is the first book in The Foreworld Saga, which continues in the imaginatively named The Mongoliad: Book Two and concludes in The Mongoliad: Book Three.  

Enjoyed this? Try:
~The Fallen Blade has a more supernatural bent, but it's a similarly grim take on one group's struggle to survive: in this case, the group is the population of Venice, and people are very willing to sacrifice themselves and each other for any scrap of victory they can find.

Note: The book is also coauthored by Joseph Brassey and Cooper Moo, but the Blogger interface has a character limit on tags.

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