There are some big names on the title page of The Mongoliad: Book One, and some big hopes raised by the back cover, which tells us this is the first of "a trilogy about the complex, bloody history of Western martial arts." The trilogy is, in turn, a part of The Foreworld Saga, created as an online "social media" experiment in text, although the website confirms the print edition is now the preferred, definitive edition. Some of the promises of the cover are delivered—this is a book with a great deal of fighting—but I'm not sure I see much sign of building a history of martial arts, nor of definitive input from all the listed authors.
The first pages of The Mongoliad hold a great deal of promise. The text begins with Cnán, a name which immediately plays with our expectations of Conan the Barbarian, particularly as this character is a woman. A brief comment places her religion as centering around "subterranean mithraeum" (p. 3), which reminded me of the pleasures of Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History (2000). Cnán spies on a camp of knights, allowing the text to describe the place and its people, but she is not as stealthy as she thinks. Sadly, the next hundred pages read more like a description of a roleplaying game as the special skill of each person she meets—thief, paladin, archer, alchemist, etc.—and their missions are laid out.
The long process of character introductions ensures a slow pace, made slower by alternating with a separate thread. In the initial thread, the Mongol horde has reached far into Europe, and now masses near Legnica (in today's southwest Poland) in high summer. They are building an arena and their khan has declared a tournament for the future of Europe. And so the knights of Christendom are gathering to fight the Mongols' champions.
The second thread is set in the court of the Great Khan Ögedei, currently at Karakorum. A representative from Ögedei's brother has been sent to court, to caution the Great Khan against his excessive drinking. Gansukh is a simple warrior, out of place amidst the intrigue of the court, where he needs the most basic tactics explained to him—"you need to formulate a better strategy now. One that keeps you close to your enemies" (p. 89). He is taught by Lian, a Chinese slave/courtesan/tutor, who is haughty and beautiful, thawing as she discovers that he is a diamond in the rough. "[S]he blinked when she saw the smile on his face. She looked away quickly, but not before he caught a flash of unguarded emotion in her eyes" (p. 87). She, in turn, is keen to learn how to fight, which gives our authors a chance to explain the foundation skills of archery. However, much more is made of Gansukh's rival at court. We can be sure Munokhoi is not a nice man because he has "a skeletal appearance, despite the youthful length of his facial hair" and "[a] pale scar ran from behind his left ear and disappeared into his tunic" (pp. 111-12).
This storyline can run for as long as required—and it doesn't come within touching distance of the initial thread. Frankly, they do little to reinforce each other. However, I expect this series is not quite as prepared to try the reader's patience as Stephenson's vast Baroque trilogy, so the separate novels are intertwined rather than inserted end-on-end.
Back on the broken edge of Europe, the viewpoints spread as groups of knights choose their own objectives. The knights who remain at Legnica would appear to comprise the lesser members of the party as few are named and only one battle in the arena is described. However, that battle goes on for several chapters. Each move and breath is described whilst the viewpoint flips between the two antagonists so that we can see how each addresses similar moments. This is a pyrotechnic piece of writing, an example of the craft of text:
Zug, making a much smaller movement, was able to snap the tip of his sword downward and get it in the way of the strike. Again, he could not hope to withstand the glaive's momentum, but this time, he had the ground to act as a brace. When their blades crashed together, the tip of the great sword was driven onto the sand, where it came to a dead stop. As did the glaive. (p. 235)
Other, less formal, battles are also spread through the novel. None is as detailed as this encounter but all are shown with a clear eye, enabling the reader to follow how the fighting moves, how the fighters express themselves through their weapons. If this is what you are looking for in a book, I can solidly recommend it to you.
Elsewhere, and perhaps most interesting in plot terms, is the matter of empire at the heart of the Mongol court. Most readers will know that the Mongol empire lasted very few generations, so there is an inherent tragedy ahead for the Mongols. This is set up through their stated belief that they are just beginning the long dynastic rule of the descendants of Genghis Khan but cut through by the drunken state of Ögedei, son of Genghis. Ögedei becomes the most interesting person in this book. He is observed by multiple viewpoint characters, whilst the writing from his perspective shows a conflicted interior life and includes flashbacks which deepen his past. These approaches combine to provide a breadth of perspective on Ögedei which is lacking for most of the other characters, whom we usually see from a single angle and whose inner life seems to be no more than a simple path to action.
Not much of The Mongoliad is occupied by Ögedei, though, and a great deal more is, indeed, a book of fighting, where many of the characters feel like name tags for a set of fighting skills, whilst the plot just moves them around the set until the action resumes. A reader seeking the cleverness of a Neal Stephenson novel is only likely to find the occasional tic of anachronistic language; one seeking Greg Bear's big ideas is likely to be left hoping they are in a later volume. I am not familiar with the other authors; perhaps those who are will find material more to their expectation. Still, there may be some hope for the future; the latter part of the Western side of this book shows intrigue within the Christian forces and dissent amongst the Mongol fighters, whilst in the East, Lian suddenly develops a desire for escape from her gilded cage. Although this book closes with the promise of a decent battle at the start of book two, it comes to its end simply by running out of pages. There is no noticeable climax in the events at the Mongol court and no great revelation amongst the Western parties either. Given what I've read so far, I'm confident the next book's opening battle will get it off to a great start, but don't expect much else from this series.