Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Battle of the Books, Summer 2012, Championship Round :: The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis vs. The Mongoliad: Book One by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear & five others

We (finally!) present the championship of the Summer 2012 Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books, which pits The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis against The Mongoliad: Book One by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, E.D. deBirmingham, Erik Bear, Joseph Bassey and Cooper Moo. For this final match-up, I've read through page 200 of both books, and our winner will be the book I, Amy, want to keep on reading most.

The Coldest War: Tor Books, July 2012, 251 pages, volume two of The Milkwood Triptych, cover art by Chris McGrath. The Coldest War is a fantasy alternate history book set in 1963 after a different WWII. The Coldest War got to the finals by edging out Fair Coin by E.C. Myers in the first round, prevailing over Faith by John Love in the second round, and winning the semi-final match-up with Taft 2012 by Jason Heller.

Gretel and Klaus, who have Nazi-developed special abilities powered by batteries, escaped a high security Russian research facility. Gretel is a seer and Klaus can "ghost" through walls. In London, Gretel offered their former associate, Reinhardt, pieces of a battery blueprint for his help in her future schemes.

William Beauclerk, younger brother of the Duke of Aelred, was broken by the terrible things he did for Britain during WWII. Gwedolyn, who became his wife, helped him heal. Now William heads a foundation to improve relations between the UK and the USSR. Gwendolyn disapproves of Will speaking with the Russian cultural attaché because she suspects he is KGB. When it’s later revealed what Will has done, Gwendolyn is devastated and Will gets unwanted attention from both British and Soviet intelligence.

Gretel and Klaus turn themselves in to the Secret Intelligence Service. Gretel won’t talk until they bring in Raybould Marsh, who hasn’t worked for MI6 on Milkweed for years. Marsh, who lately has gone through difficult times, is rehired. Gretel informs SIS that the Soviets are killing Britain’s warlocks. She provides evidence that secret information has been leaked. British Intelligence tries unsuccessfully to detect and disrupt Russian spy communications.

The Soviets have reverse engineered the Reichsbehörde technology, and have at least one battery powered, super assassin. Klaus, who is tired of his sister’s machinations, volunteers to help Marsh and SIS trap and combat the Russian agent. They unfortunately learn that the assassin has improved special powers. Several fashionable London houses, plus their street, will need major repairs.

The Mongoliad: Book One: 47 North trade paperback, 448 pages. The Mongoliad was originally released in a serialized format online. Of the gang of seven authors, Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear are well known science fiction writers, and Mark Teppo is the author of an urban fantasy series. The Mongoliad: Book One made it to the finals by overpowering Casting Shadows by J. Kelley Anderson in the first round, edging out The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen in the second round, and getting by Silver by Rhiannon Held in the semifinals.

The year is 1241, after the Mongol invaders have defeated combined European forces at the Battle of Legnica in Poland. Onghwe Khan issues a challenge for competitions between champions. Men of the Order of Shield-Brethren gather from many different lands near a ruined monastery. Cnán, a woman spy, brings a message from Illarion, an injured friend of theirs. Cnán guides the physician Raphael, Hunter Finn and young fighter Haakon on a rescue mission.

Illarion says that Onghwe Khan will not honor his word to spare Christendom if their champions can defeat the Mongols in the arena. Cnán mentions that all the Khans would depart for Mongolia upon the death of the Great Khan or Khagan. Feronantus decides to split the group. Some will remain to fight in the arena contests while Feronantus leads a group of twelve, including Cnán, east to Mongolia to assassinate the Khagan.

Later, Cnán discovers that one of their small group, Istvan, is taking vengeance on his private forays. Feronantus sends Percival, Eleázar and Raphael with Cnán to bring back Istvan. But Mongols are tracking Istvan as well. Near a river, and in the marshes, there are skirmishes. They find Istvan, but are outnumbered. The Mongols chase them.

Meanwhile in Mongolia, the Khagan, Ögedei Khan, son of Genghis Khan, is tired of dealing with bureaucrats. His brother sends a young warrior, Gansuhk, as an emissary to moderate Ögedei’s excessive drinking. The Chinese woman Lian is tasked with tutoring Gansuhk on how to behave at court. Gansuhk impresses Ögedei Khan with his bow hunting skills. Lian, who wants to learn how to fight, gets a archery lesson from Gansuhk. When an intruder is spotted at the palace, Gansuhk takes it upon himself to catch him.

Back in Poland, in the arena, the young fighter Haakon faces the Mongol champion Zug, whose gaudy armor makes him look like a demon. Haakon uses a greatsword, and Zug wields a polearm.

The Battle: We have two books containing historical aspects. The Mongoliad: Book One adds fiction to the known facts of the Mongol Invasion of Europe, while The Coldest War is a fantasy alternative history with Britain (not the USA) and the USSR fighting the Cold War.

The Coldest War started with three different story parts, those centered on Gretel and Klaus, William Beauclerk, and Marsh. Before I reached page 200, with the tension ratcheting up, they ended up together. Not that they like each other. In this quote, Pethick, as well as Marsh, are British intelligence.
     Pethick waited for the paneled door to latch shut with an audible click before addressing Marsh. "Just got an interesting message over the blower.  Our lamplighters down in Lyminster report that Ivan’s gone bughouse.  Started a few minutes ago.  The rats are abandoning ship."  He glanced at Klaus and Gretel, who still stood at the window.  "I think it worked."
     Will realized he hadn’t a clue what Pethick was talking about.  Nothing the man said made the least bit of sense.  And that only deepened the sense of terror, because Will was at the center of it all.  How had everything gone so utterly beyond his control?  He’d thought he finally put everything in his life right.  Yet now he didn’t know if he’d survive the week.  The carousel of life was spinning out of control, faster and faster, while Will’s sweaty fingers lost their grip an inch at a time.  Soon he’d be flung into the bushes, where lurked bears and demons.
The main characters in The Coldest War display intense yet believable emotions. They have depth, partly because this is book two of the series, and have scars from past events.

This book contains unsettling aspects. After page 100, I learned of the warlocks’ awful blood prices. And then there’s the creepy children in the basement.

The Mongoliad: Book One, upon reading 200 pages, left me with three separate unresolved situations. The party heading to Mongolia has a battle on their hands, Gansuhk is chasing a possible assassin, and Haakon is fighting a fearsome opponent in the arena. For fantasy epics, multiple points of view are the norm, but it made me realize which characters I cared about most.

This book has a horde of characters. Some seem to go in and out of the spotlight. Perhaps because the story is told frequently from Cnán’s point of view, about the group of adventurers, those parts worked best for me.
     Percival sidled away from the brambles, then halted, only dimly visible.  Cnán saw resolution in his posture.  "We shall rejoin Feronantus," he announced, as if this had always been obvious.
     "If we can find him, which I doubt," Eleázar said.  "We shall be leading the Mongols directly to the others."
     "Yes," Percival said,"and by the same token, we shall then have sufficient numbers to destroy them utterly."
     "It would be…polite, at the very least, to give Feronantus a bit of warning before leading a company of furious Mongols into his camp," Raphael pointed out.
     "I will ride ahead," Istvan began, spinning about on his roan, crashing through the brush – but faltered, as even he saw the fallacy.
     "Not in these woods," Eleázar said dryly.
     "Cnán shall go before us, swift and quiet, as always," Percival said, "and we shall trail behind, slowly and noisily.  Go now!"
     This was the moment at which she would have gladly abandoned them all to the fates they deserved had it not been for the startling detail of Percival staring straight and steady into her eyes as he gave her the order.  And so, grumbling, she led her pony between the trees.
In the parts featuring Lian and Gansuhk, I liked most of their banter. But I think Lian fell for Gansuhk unexplainably fast. The Khagan’s flashbacks were well done. And although I’m rooting for Haakon in the arena, and I know more about medieval weaponry than most women, martial combat and weapon technique admittedly isn’t a big wow for me.

The Mongoliad: Book One has good action, bloody confrontations, and nice touches of camaraderie and humor.

Both of these books are entertaining, but I want to finish The Coldest War more. I found it faster paced. For me, technology to walk through walls trumps medieval weaponry. Besides, The Coldest War left me hanging on the ending of the scene with the Russian assassin, arrgh!


Congratulations to Ian Tregillis, who becomes our third Battle of the Books winner, after James Renner and Elizabeth Bear. We will feature The Coldest War in a full review at Fantastic Reviews, and we will also try to arrange an interview with Tregillis.

Stay tuned for the now somewhat misnamed Fall Bracket of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books, which Aaron will be judging.

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