This novel is set in the year 1241, when Europe is being invaded by an insatiable horde of Mongols. I suppose I should have used air quotes around Europe, because at the time, it was called Christendom and the notion of a centralized Europe would have been laughable. At any rate, the novel follows an order of knights as they continue their quest to The East to kill the great Khan. For the record, there are less than twenty people in this party, and despite the fact that they are each worth ten times as many men, they plan to march into Mongolia and kill the most powerful man in the most powerful army in the world. Also, this is only one of the subplots that are woven throughout the book.
Each chapter is set in a different region and often tells many sides of the story in that locale. There is the dramatic (I
still don’t understand how) election of a pope, the machinations of gladiators and slaves in the city at the edge of the invasion, the politics and intrigue in the Mongol court, and the hunting party from the previous paragraph. These stories are patiently teased out, until the stakes are higher than you expect. Then, they add a new element and everything gets cooler.
The genesis of this book lies in the sword fighting club. I suppose the more accurate term would be Western Martial Arts. This isn’t a fencing club. They attempt to safely study and practice fighting techniques that are designed to kill the other fighter, not determine who is more skilled. I guess the original practitioners decided that if one man was too dead to brag about his skill, then the other fellow must be better. So, this group decided that they should write something, since so many of them were writers already. The authors of this book are Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey, E.D. deBirmingham, and Cooper Moo. They formed some writing teams to tackle the chapters, while Mark Teppo kept everything together. The thing that impressed me so much about this book was that it never felt like it was being written by more than one person.
I realize that much of this review was me trying to explain how cool this book is, and I never got around to the review part. I loved this book. The action was some of the best I’ve read in a while. Each fight is important to the story. The battles range from one-on-one to ten-on-sixty. Each one is the right kind of detailed and wonderfully inventive. The characters are well drawn and multi-faceted. Often, it is as simple as that one detail that breaks the stereotype that I think the character will fit into. The thing to remember is that this book tells the story of the Mongols in a way that I like them, while also telling the story of the knights on a quest to kill the Mongols, so that I like them, too. The plot pulled me to the next page relentlessly. I was thrilled when it was time for a battle, and I was thrilled when it was time for character development. I spent the entire time excited to see what this book had in store next. I am now excited to see what the next book has in store. I cannot recommend this one enough.
Five Lovable Mongol Hordes out of Five.