The world of The Mongoliad—the Foreworld, as its creators call it—is very much like our own; specifically, in this case, our own as it was in the 13th century, when the Mongols had invaded much of Eastern Europe and were moving steadily westward. Originally, the story had its genesis in Neal Stephenson wanting to know more about swordfighting, which in turn led to modern practitioners of Western martial arts, the traditions of fighting that predated the Renaissance and the rise of firearms. From these roots The Mongoliad took shape in the hands of Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, E.D. DeBirmingham, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey, and Cooper Mao, and the resulting epic was published in serialized format at mongoliad.com, starting in 2009.
Teppo has already provided Tor with an account of how The Mongoliad came to be and the process of its development and creation; the entirety of the original serial, completed over the course of sixteen months, is available on the Mongoliad web site. Why, then, resort to the old-fashioned dead-tree format? As the site FAQ states, the version on the web site remains available as part of the project’s intent to give readers access to the overall creative process; however, the online version is “NOT the definitive edition, nor the authors’ preferred text”. The new edition, published by 47North, is considered definitive by the authors; the current volume is the first of three.
Several different stories comprise The Mongoliad—we are first introduced to Cnán, who is one of an all-female order of guides and messengers called the Binders. She delivers a message to the knights of the Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae, warrior monks also known as the Shield-Brethren (amongst other names), and her news eventually draws her and the Shield-Brethren eastward, on a quest to assassinate Ögedei, the great Khagan, the son of Genghis Khan—and in so doing, bring chaos to the Mongol empire and save Europe from invasion.
Meanwhile, a young warrior named Gansukh has arrived in the Khagan’s court, sent by Ögedei’s older brother in a desperate attempt to curb the Khagan’s excessive drinking habits—something none of yes-men surrounding Ögedei have been able or willing to do. Gansukh is placed under the tutorship of a restless Chinese slave girl named Lian, who instructs him in the subtle dangers of courtly etiquette and rank. Meanwhile Ögedei’s son Onghwe has summoned Europe’s greatest warriors for a battle in a great arena outside the city of Legnica, where some will do battle with a Japanese champion and his Korean friend, who after a career of butchery no longer wish to fight for the Onghwe’s amusement.
Contrary to what you might expect, given the number of stories and the number of hands involved, The Mongoliad is a remarkably consistent work—a credit to Creative Lead Teppo’s skill in cat-herding, no doubt. The pacing is taut throughout, and as befits the original serialized format, each chapter ends with a solid hook that pulls the reader along swiftly to the next part of the story. And unsurprisingly, given the book’s origins in the study of pre-Renaissance fighting techniques, the fight scenes in particular are written exceptionally well, with a clarity and subtlety missing from just about every other representation of medieval warfare in prose or on film.
The authors have clearly done their homework on the period, but they wear their collective education lightly; the result is a world with depth and texture, not a history textbook. Fans of Brian Wood’s Viking comic Northlanders, for instance, will find a lot to like here; The Mongoliad has a similar blend of action, period detail, and modern vernacular that somehow doesn’t feel out of place. (And if you haven’t read Northlanders, you should fix that; try The Plague Widow. But I digress.)
Subtle fantastical elements are woven throughout—here, a knight’s religious experience is not simply a metaphor, but an actual, witnessable event involving a mystical light, with repercussions in the world. How these events play out in the long run remain to be seen—Volume 1 it ends with all the characters poised on the verge of the next big plot twist. Impatient readers who really want to know what happens next may wish to dive into the archives at mongoliad.com, but given the caveats about preferred texts, perhaps it may be better to wait for Volume 2.