Neal Stephenson et al ( writers): The Mongoliad: Book One

Take a couple of well-known professional authors and sign them up for a Western Martial Arts class, studying half-swording and grappling, learning to use pommel and quillons in addition to point and edge. Let them realise how their new knowledge would have affected their previous writing. Then let them sit down over a few beers with some of their sparring partners – some of them also writers – and it’s no great surprise if what comes of it all is a project like The Mongoliad: Book One.

It’s a likely premise, too. A cult of European warrior monks undertake a suicide mission to kill the Great Khan. And in the Khan’s court, a lone young warrior is sent on what seems like a suicide mission in its own right: to persuade the short-tempered ruler to quit being a drunk.

Setting out across the ruins of Russia in the wake of the Mongol invasion, peppered with the horrors that the Mongols delighted in visiting on their defeated foes – and the horrors those foes were forced to resort to themselves – the hand-picked group heads east. Meanwhile, in the Khan’s capitol city, the naïve Gansukh struggles against his own habitual thinking to learn something of politics – a kind of battlefield in which he has no experience – with a beautiful Chinese slave for his tutor. And somewhere along the way, a grand invitational gladiatorial game is conducted by the Khan, with the promise that if the European champions beat his, he’ll cease his invasion. We know it’s a red herring from the start, but there are a few decent reasons to play along, and a handy mystery to be solved.

As you might expect from the genesis of the project, the fights are uncommonly well-written – and clear. A sword teacher myself, I can tell this tale was crafted by sworders. Almost every bit of martial action in this story displays that.

Granted, I do have a quibble with one armpit blow – even delivered with a bare hand, that thrust is legendarily fatal (as witness the story of Creugas and Damoxenas). Likewise, when an arrow is shot through a cloak in the first few pages, I have my doubts that it’s going to pierce the cloak, then pick the cloak-wearer up and slam her head into a tree: it’s just going to pass right through the cloak, assuming the fabric is light enough and the bow heavy enough for the shaft to penetrate, with probably just a little more ‘plucking’ effect on the fabric than a bullet would deliver in the same spot.

But those are pretty minor issues. More critical problems with the story itself include several characters who do not seem remotely medieval in their outlook, the wisdom of a leader who decides to send a bloodthirsty ‘shroom-head psychotic along on a mission requiring deepest secrecy, moments of dramatic suspense at the expense of clarity, and crucial parts of certain fights that are simply not told.

The cover copy tells us of “unforgettable characters”, but the closest thing to that is the person of Gansukh, a fish out of water in the Khan’s city. And even his story is not precisely original. There is not, in fact, a whole lot that is very original here. We’ve got one lovely stroke – the assassination mission – woven in with some convoluted sub-plots, some pretty standard tropes of historical fantasy, and a bit of rather forced suspense.

The central premise is grand, but a trait I have observed in other Stephenson novels surfaces here as well: he seems to write about his story more than he actually writes the tale itself. He doesn’t show us; he tells us. If you like his other work, however, this won’t bother you here either. I have not read much of Bear’s work – and none of it recently – so his touch is one I can’t distinguish here; and the other gentlemen’s names are as yet unfamiliar to me. But there is a definite sense of more than one creative mind at work here. Indeed, there are so many plot threads being spun that the authors are going to have to be careful not to trip on any of them.

There are homages left and right – most conspicuously a tip of the sallet helm to Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” character, assuming names based on whatever happens to be in sight when he’s asked. And his presence does give the authors the opportunity to write a fight between greatsword and naginata, which is one of the book’s high points.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m looking forward to The Mongoliad: Book Two, if only to see how the promised transition to Victorian England and the life of Sir Richard Francis Burton is going to be handled. This isn’t a bad book at all. But it doesn’t even begin to live up to the back cover hype. Reading more like a demented cross between Robert Shea, Robert Anton Wilson and S.M. Stirling than “a dangerous quest where willpower and blades are tested and the scope of worldbuilding is redefined”, The Mongoliad: Book One is best regarded as a light, bloody entertainment for a summer afternoon. My biggest problem with the book is that between the cover copy and the press release, I was set up for something far more authentic and far more original.

Bear that in mind going in: I predict that if you lower your expectations a little, you’ll elevate your pleasure a lot.

(47North, 2012)

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