Of Swords and Plumes 001: Katabasis
Katabasis: A Novel of the Foreworld,by Joseph Brassey, Cooper Moo, Mark Teppo, and Angus Trim. 47North, 2013; reviewed in the trade paperback edition.
“Katabasis” is a sequel to “The Mongoliad” trilogy, a series of historical adventures set in the 13th century in Europe and Asia. Like the books that preceded it, this novel was written by a group of collaborators, though unlike “The Mongoliad” this book lacks the marquee names of Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear. It’s part of the ongoing “Foreworld Saga,” and you have to give them credit for the clever name, as Foreworldsays “history,” but with a tone familiar to Fantasy and Sci-Fi readers, the better to market it to them. And this makes sense, as 47North is Amazon’s F&SF imprint.
The common thread binding together the authors of the “Mongoliad” trilogy was an interest in a realistic portrayal of medieval martial arts. We’ve all heard the discussion: “Assuming equal skill, what would happen if an armored knight fought a samurai?” Well, these folks decided to answer that question, in spades, adding in Viking warriors, Welsh longbowmen, Mongolian horse archers, and a Korean with a polearm for the sake of completeness. There was a sizeable cast of characters, from Rome to the Russian steppes, to Mongolia and western China, all involved in a great deal of very credible medieval mayhem. The protagonists were thin but likeable, the settings were interesting and believable, and the story moved right along, but when it ended, it left a number of questions open and hanging.
“Katabasis” picks up right where “The Mongoliad” left off, continuing the story of the band of western knights who went to the far east to attempt to assassinate the Khan of the Mongols, now returning, pursued, to the west. And it introduces new characters in the Rus of Kiev and Novgorod, a land just recovering from being ravaged by the Mongol Horde, and now facing a new threat from west in the form of the Teutonic Knights. The story culminates in the celebrated clash between the German knights and the Russians led by Alexander Nevsky.
Like its predecessors, “Katabasis” strings together a number of set-piece battles between disparate opponents, this time highlighting the efforts of Yasper, the Dutch alchemist. Those of you who are players of fantasy role-playing games who have ever wondered, “What actual good would a combat alchemist be to a party of warriors?” will find an answer here.
Though the authors are all newcomers the novel is well-written enough – I noticed a few rough spots in the early chapters, but then the writers seem to have hit their stride and the rest was pretty polished. In a novel written by four authors one expects to see slight stylistic differences from chapter to chapter, but the handoffs here are relatively smooth and any noticeable seams are easily forgiven.
The style is standard post-modern gritty and terse:
“Who is chasing you?” Bruno asked, breaking the silence.
“Mongols,” Vera said.
“All of them, probably,” Vera replied casually as if she were commenting on the mild weather they were having.
It gets the job done, with just a touch of swashbuckling swagger.
“The Mongoliad” was 95% historical adventure, but it had elements of mysticism woven into its story, so technically it qualifies as fantasy, albeit of the mild “What if there was some truth behind old superstitions?” category. “Katabasis” leans more heavily on these mystical elements. It’s most successful at this when it stays rather vague, merely linking together mythic undercurrents common to several cultures. Once they bring the Russian witch Baba Yaga onstage the story veers into the fantastic, and the authors have trouble keeping it credible.
But it all works out in the end, and there’s a satisfactory bang-up conclusion that ties things together pretty well, at least for this set of characters. (Another “Foreworld” novel is promised that will address the fates of those “Mongoliad” protagonists who stayed in the west.) Recommended, especially if you enjoyed the previous “Foreworld” books.
“Katabasis” is available from Amazon in trade paperback, Kindle download, unabridged audio CD, and unabridged Audible download formats. Additional digital-only stories are available at www. foreworld.com.