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The Mongoliad Book 3 by various authors

The Mongoliad Book ThreeReview: The Mongoliad Book 3 by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, et al (47North, 2013)

And so it ends. As always at the end of a book series I’m left feeling somewhat deflated; not through disappointment but from the realisation that it’s over. The characters I’ve ridden alongside for a couple of thousand pages are nothing more than literary dust on the wind. The locales must retreat to corners of my mind, probably never to be visited again. So following my enthusiastic review of the first two installments of The Mongoliad, how did the conclusion hold up in comparison?

In a word – scrumptiously. As a reminder there were four distinct threads being woven by the writing team. The primary plots concerned the Mongols led by the sons of Genghis Khan and the Shield Brethren, noble knights who have sworn to destroy them. In the Eastern Europen of Hunern, Ongwei Khan presides over a bloody tournament, challenging the whole of Christendom to send their bravest champions to test their mettle against his own prize warriors, captives from previous conquests. If the West is victorious he will pack up and return to his homeland, or so he claims. The Shield Brethren decide to play the Khan’s game, competing in his bloodsports yet all the while seeking a chink in the Mongols’ armour – a chink which reveals itself in the form of the very slaves they confront in the arena.

This strategy is little more than a feint however. Feronantus, leader of the Shield Brethren, is leading an elite group of knights and their allies east with one goal in mind – the assassination of Ogedei Khan, ruler of the Mongols. His death would result in a recall of the horde to Mongolia in order to appoint  new Khagan. Their journey is hampered by mystical visions, enraged comrades and by a particularly adept Mongol whom they christen Graymane for his shock of white hair.

Totally oblivious to the approaching threat, Ogedei seeks to wrestle control of his life back from the alcoholic mess it has become. To this end he begins a pilgrimage to the hunting grounds held sacred by his father, seeking to hunt a great spirit bear and recapture the respect of his followers. In the meantime there is unrest in his camp between his highest officers and unbeknownst to him he has a Shield Brother in his midst, one of his spoils of war.

Mixed in among these storylines is the odd one out, that of Ference, Ocyrhoe and Father Rodrigo and their travails in Rome. Survivors of a great Mongol massacre on the fields of Mohi, Ferenc guides Rodrigo back to the spiritual heartland of his faith where he believes he must deliver a vital message of prophecy to the Pope. Little does he know that Gregory has passed on, leaving the Cardinals in disarray as they struggle to elect a successor with the Senator of Rome and the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, snapping at their heels. Political subterfuge rather than action is the name of the game here as various parties align to have their chosen candidate nominated to the papacy for more or less heinous purposes.

The three core subplots work together perfectly, the pace being notched up inch by inch towards a breathless and bloody climax. The Roman story seems a little out of place in that it has more or less zero connection to the others save for choronology but it provides some light relief in the forms of the Cardinals … and … and in the wonderfully realised figure of Frederick The Great. Recognised by many as a genius aand enlightened soul far ahead of his times, the Emperor is depicted here as a straight-talking and gutter-mouthed everyman, dispensing wit and wisdom in stark contrast to the pious, measured tones of the Cardinals and Shield Brethren. I’d happily read a whole volume dedicated to his exploits alone.

Unfortunately there is a glaring flaw with the conclusion of The Mongoliad. The communal, scene-driven nature of the collaboration, while novel and refreshing in the first two books, becomes just a little too fragmented towards the end. Instead of lengthy chapters taking care to develop and advance the storyline in each tale we are now dealt tiny snippets reminiscent of the flash-cuts so beloved of modern Hollywood action movies. Scenes change in mid-sword swing, giving us barely enough time to refresh ourselves with each scene before we are transported thousands of miles away. I appreciate why this was attempted but it just doesn’t work when taken to this kind of extreme – a book simply is not a movie and there’s only so much jumping around you can do before it becomes tiresome.

That aside, The Mongoliad was a highly entertaining read, all the more so for the nature of its creation. The authors managed to pool their knowledge to create a wonderful picture of life and war in the era of the Crusades. From the swordfighting to the scenery, the language to the … everything just feels so solid and real, so full of colour. The trilogy’s conclusion leaves ample opportunity for further writing so here’s hoping for a return journey. Or maybe the authors can attempt the impossible and light a fire under George RR Martin’s arse…

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