On first hearing the notion of The Mongoliad my initial reaction was excitement at the prospect of new material from Neal Stephenson. My favourite author of recent years taking on the Crusades and the offspring of Genghis Khan? Bring it on! However, the fervour was soon tempered by the presence of co-writers. How could seven individuals possibly cooperate to produce a coherent narrative? How could their individual styles blend together without the seams becoming distractingly apparent? The answer, I’m pleased to say, is near-perfectly.
The Mongoliad is a pioneering attempt at collaborative fiction using every modern medium at the authors’ disposal. The group – including Stephenson and such sci-fi luminaries as Greg Bear and author/blogger Mark Teppo – initially began crafting the story chapter-by-chapter in an online serialisation. From this sprouted a website and active fan community and the eventual collection of the tales into three paperback and digital volumes.
As for the story itself, the team has delivered a masterful piece of historical fiction, set in the 13th Century against a backdrop of Genghis Khan’s conquest of the known world. In Karkorum his son, Ogedei, is struggling with his position as Khagan, the Khan of Khans. Haunted by his brother’s sacrifice to save his life he drowns himself in alcohol, threatening to destabilise the Mongolian Empire as they flounder under a laughing stock of a leader. Meanwhile in the West his surviving brothers continue their assault on Christendom, Ongwhe staging a tournament promising to spare Europe further devastation of their greatest champions can best his own in single combat.
Amongst those taking up the challenge are the Shield Brethren, a monastic order of knights sworn to protect those in need and whose martial skills are unmatched across the land. Becoming suspicious of Ongwhe’s circus they decide that the only way to remove the hordes from their homeland is too cause the Khagan’s brothers to return home. Only one event could spur such a retreat – the death of the Khagan himself. The knights divide their forces, the majority remaining at the tournament to provide cover while a handful embark on an impossible, suicidal mission across thousands of miles of hostile territory.
Meanwhile back in Ogedei’s court his slide into self-destruction has not gone unnoticed. Members of his inner circle use his perpetually clouded judgement to further their own ambitions while the Empire crumbles around them. In an attempt to mitigate the damage one of his brothers sends an envoy with a mission to part him from the bottle at all costs. Gansukh, a fierce warrior of the steppes, is ill-suited for court life and assigned the Chinese slave Lian to educate him in politics, history and guile.
The first book of The Mongoliad weaves these three strands – the tournament, the quest and the court – into a gripping story brimming with the action and political intrigue beloved of fans of George RR Martin. Given the serialised nature of the undertaking each chapter deals with a single story thread, typically presenting the reader with a good old-fashioned cliffhanger to keep them salivating until the following two chapters are completed. In fact so deft is the storytelling that it’s almost an annoyance to be forced to leave one group of characters for a couple of dozen pages at a time – until, that is, you remember that the other sub-plots are equally captivating. It’s a masterful juggling act and never once do the team fail to keep all the balls in the air.
By the time the second book rolls around – which will be in the space of a couple of days if you devour the first as ravenously as I did – then we find The Mongoliad’s world expanding in scope. We’re treated to some expository flashbacks involving Francis Of Assisi before joining a whole new plot taking us to the heart of the Christian Empire, Rome itself. Here the machinations of the political elite in trying to influence the election of a new Pope bring an altogether more Machiavellian flavour to the novel. You’ll also notice that the authors have become more comfortable in their world, with the seriousness of the first instalment giving way to more humour and numerous subtle genre references.
As mentioned before my interest in The Mongoliad was piqued by the involvement of Neal Stephenson, an author who has proven his skills with labyrinthine plots in The Baroque Cycle and Anathem and with fast-paced action sequences in Reamde (to be reviewed shortly). The Mongoliad passes the action and intrigue tests with aplomb, never once falling victim to the endless inconsequential tangents of Martin or the dreary descriptive prose of Tolkien. In the action sequences this is largely due to the laudable dedication of the authors themselves, having thrown themselves into weeks of gruelling martial training purely to allow them to write more accurately and honestly.
I’ll conclude this review here before I start drooling like an obsessed fanboy. Suffice to say that parts one and two of The Mongoliad far surpassed my inflated expectations, making a mockery of complaints that there was a dearth of action and that it was essentially the tale of an extended journey to the east. Far from it, this is one of the most vibrant and exciting novels of recent years, sinking its claws into you from the opening chapters and refusing to reliquish its hold till long after the last page is turned. Now if you’ll excuse me, the third and final chapter begs my attention.