The Mongoliad is a collaborative effort from Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, and a few other authors. Intrigued by the project, I invited Teppo to tell us a bit more about it! For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
The first novel to be released in The Foreworld Saga, The Mongoliad: Book One, is an epic-within-an-epic, taking place in 13th century. In it, a small band of warriors and mystics raise their swords to save Europe from a bloodthirsty Mongol invasion. Inspired by their leader (an elder of an order of warrior monks), they embark on a perilous journey and uncover the history of hidden knowledge and conflict among powerful secret societies that had been shaping world events for millennia.
But the saga reaches the modern world via a circuitous route. In the late 19th century, Sir Richard F. Burton, an expert on exotic languages and historical swordsmanship, is approached by a mysterious group of English martial arts aficionados about translating a collection of long-lost manuscripts. Burton dies before his work is finished, and his efforts were thought lost until recently rediscovered by a team of amateur archaeologists in the ruins of a mansion in Trieste, Italy. From this collection of arcana, the incredible tale of The Mongoliad was recreated.
Full of high adventure, unforgettable characters, and unflinching battle scenes, The Mongoliad ignites a dangerous quest where willpower and blades are tested and the scope of world-building is redefined.
One of the comments I hear regularly when I tell people about The Mongoliad is "Oh, well, I don't read epic fantasy." They don't mean to be dismissive about it; they're just pointing out that, in all likelihood, they've already checked out of this conversation and the rest is simply going to be me talking to them while they think about butterflies or chocolate covered bonbons or the like. I'd don't really want to be dismissive in return, because, really, "epic" and "fantasy" are two words that mean a lot more than the sort of thing that Tolkien wrote.
Here's the thing: I understand labels. I understand genre marketing. I get that people like to put things in neat little boxes so that they know how to approach them. I also started off my career writing "urban fantasy" books that don't have werewolves, vampires, or the undead in them. I call the Codex books "occult noir" and no one understands what I'm saying; I say "urban fantasy" and we have, at least, a general starting point.
For a moment, then, let's consider this claim that The Mongoliad is an epic fantasy. What's epic about it is the amount of research we did. We wanted to write a Western martial arts adventure story, one that was true to the actual fighting techniques of the time. Fighting techniques that are, only now, being rediscovered and taught in martial arts schools around the world. You know what? There's a lot more to fighting with a sword than simply hitting the other guy first.
And as we went down the rabbit hole of martial arts, we realized we couldn't short-change the rest of the story as well. So, when we talk about how Rœdwulf's bow is constructed and how he fires it, it's because we dug up copies of Roger Ascham's Toxophilus, a 16th century manual of proper construction and use of the longbow. When we talk about the composition of the forests around Legnica, it's because we sourced--as near as we could fathom--historical data from Polish naturalists who are keen on the history of their local greenery. (We also had a list of about twenty bird species that were native to the area and we would have worked them all in somehow, but, well, we had to draw the line somewhere.) The point is: we wanted to get as many of the details right as we could, because history is so much, much more fantastic than you can ever imagine.
We had a conversation once about where to file The Mongoliad. Was it alternate history? Not entirely. Was it a secret history? Somewhat. Did we make things up? Certainly. Did we stretch the truth a bit? Most definitely. Our knights, for example, use techniques that aren't entirely codified for another two hundred years (the key word here is "entirely"); their use of armor is about fifty years ahead of the rest of the Europe (they're bad-ass outliers, of course). And there are things that we make up entirely (the Binders, for instance). Oh, and the entire crypto-pagan mythology that underlies all of Foreworld?
Well, I'll argue we didn't make that up, but then again, I'm the one who has a soft spot for esoteric mystery schools.
You could argue the difference between science fiction and fantasy is the application of faith. The difference between regular fantasy and epic fantasy is then, perhaps, the amount of faith you have to bring with you when you read a story. We've written a story about medieval Europe, and guess what? They had a much, much different baseline for faith than we do now.
It's just an adventure story, really, a long-form novel that illuminated a period of history that is wonderfully rich in both its belief systems, its technologies, and its martial arts. We call our version of history Foreworld, because it is a different state of the world. How much you believe what we've written is up to you, but I can tell you that both more and less of the work is true.
In which case, maybe the best way to classify The Mongoliad is to call it an Epic Historical Fantasy.