Author: David Cook
Published: April 1990
The next installment of our historical fan fiction extravaganza takes us all the way around the globe to the wind-swept steppes of Asia eastern Faerûn, where the Mongol Tuigan horsemen are gathering in great hordes to sweep across the civilized world. The Empires trilogy chronicles the rise, rampage, and fall of Yamun Khahan, a transparent expy of Genghis Khan, as seen from the perspective of three different empires. For the first book, we see the Tuigan themselves through the eyes of Yamun’s reluctant foreign scribe.
This book was penned by legendary TSR game designer David “Zeb” Cook, better known for his less fictional work on the core rulebooks of AD&D 2nd Edition. It’s no surprise that TSR tapped him to write this book, given that he was also the author of 1st Edition’s Oriental Adventures rulebook, released five years earlier. But will lots of research and some practice at technical writing actually translate into a readable first novel?
Well, in this case… yes. Absolutely. From the very first scene, it’s obvious that this book is doing everything right that Ironhelm did wrong. If you’re going to introduce a new culture in your novel, it needs to be a first-class citizen in your writing instead of just window dressing, and the first several pages of Horselords are an excellent example of how to do this well. As Koja sees the Tuigan tent city of Quaraband for the first time, every detail of the culture is mentioned in passing: the clothes they wear, the food they eat, their decorative arts, their religious fetish objects, their personal grooming customs, their social structure, and so on. Every sense gets involved as Koja experiences the sights, sounds, and smells of the nomads’ city. The level of detail is slightly overwhelming, which is good — it reinforces Koja’s disorientation at his strange situation, and it tells the reader right off the bat that we’re not in Kansas any more.
I appreciate Cook’s nuanced portrayal of the Tuigan: they’re dirty, brutal, and barbaric, but also clever, well-organized, and surprisingly sophisticated in some respects. It’s a much more realistic and complex depiction of a culture than the Mazticans, who seemed to be strictly divided into cartoonishly evil nobles and virtuous noble savages. And by having the protagonist be from another culture we’re unfamiliar with, rather than the usual Western European-style countries of Western Faerûn, he neatly sidesteps the morass of colonialist “white saviour” tropes which Ironhelm bogged down in. All things considered, the setting work here is possibly the best in the Forgotten Realms novels so far, replete with details that make the Tuigan seem like a living, breathing culture instead of a collection of stereotypes.
Again, anyone familiar with Asian history knows the basic outline of this trilogy’s plot: a charismatic, cunning warlord has seized control of a titanic horde of fierce horsemen, and he’s going to try to take over the world with it. The historical fidelity is somewhat less painful here than it was in Ironhelm, however, because it’s not a story that gets retold very often in Western media, and the plot that they tell it with is more original. Ironhelm tried on the same thin “white colonizer meets native girl” plot that dozens of books and movies have done before and since. This novel follows Koja, a Buddhist monk who’s sent as an ambassador to the Tuigan and ends up becoming an intimate courtier and friend to Yamun Khahan — more The Last King of Scotland than Dances with Wolves.
The plot structure is refreshingly dissimilar to any of the previous Realms novels. It’s quite light on action — there are the occasional huge battle scenes, but they’re from the perspective of a religious pacifist who’s never seen warfare before and hates everything about it. Most of the plot is strictly political, as the main conflict of the book centres around Yamun’s stepmother’s attempts to assassinate him and assume control of the army. Koja occasionally does something which affects the course of affairs, but he’s ultimately more of an observer to events than an active protagonist. All of this sets Horselords apart from the typical tales of involved protagonists who are the centre of their own stories, and among the other books only The Wyvern’s Spur had much of a focus on intrigue.
Ordinarily I would heap scorn, as I have many times before, on a book which doesn’t afford its protagonist much agency. Koja is largely powerless here, swept up in the Tuigans’ conflicts and just trying to survive while betraying as few of his principles as possible. But the books I’ve complained about before were ones where the protagonists’ decision-making was nullified or avoided entirely by authorial railroading, contrived coincidence, or divine intervention. Here, Koja’s lack of agency is narratively justified because he’s effectively a prisoner among these strange people. And the further you get into the novel, the more you realize that it’s not even about him. The real protagonist of Horselords is the titular horselord: Yamun Khahan himself. He’s the exceptional hero who’s fighting, making big decisions, and fulfilling his destiny. Koja is just the poor sap who’s telling his story.
Issues of loyalty are at the core of Horselords, since personal loyalty is incredibly important to Tuigan culture. The novel opens with a demonstration of the bond between Yamun and his closest friend, and then we see that bond break over the course of the novel as they’re estranged by jealousy and ambition. As an ambassador to the Tuigan, Koja remains loyal to his homeland of Khazari even after being made Yamun’s personal scribe, but finds himself in an ethical quandary when the Tuigan invade his country. It’s a good theme which affords plenty of room for character development over the course of the novel.
Koja is the thinly-disguised fantasy equivalent of a Buddhist monk from Tibet, marooned amongst a horde of barbarous nomad warriors. He makes an excellent foil for his Tuigan hosts: he’s timid where they’re fearless, pacifistic where they’re belligerent, cultured where they’re savage, and intellectual where they’re intuitive. We watch him gradually comes to appreciate some aspects of their culture, while they eventually accept him for who he is, but he never becomes fully comfortable with it.
He’s a good viewpoint character, but I would have appreciated more focus on Koja having to deal with the ramifications of his actions, where he’s often complicit to some degree in Yamun’s crimes. He’s aware of it, and it’s mentioned that he feels guilty about it, but it never gets the sort of focus that would make you feel he’s particularly torn up inside. And I wouldn’t have minded more details of Koja’s backstory, but that’s more of a “nice to have” than a requirement — like I said, it’s ultimately not about him.
Yamun Khahan, the Genghis Khan analogue, is a character who’s difficult to classify. He’s smart but not infallible, powerful but not invincible, charismatic but not universally loved, and confident without being foolish. He could easily have been a flat “barbarian warlord”-style character; instead, he keeps subverting Koja’s (and the reader’s) expectations that just because he’s illiterate and unwashed, he must be simple. I like that Yamun is an exemplar of a hero from a culture with a very different set of values. He’s gluttonous, prideful, lustful, and often cruel — but those same qualities which horrify Koja (and the reader) are everyday behaviour by Tuigan standards, just as they’re confused by Koja’s squeamishness and physical weakness. It’s Yamun’s unshakeable force of will that makes him a hero by Tuigan standards, which is impressive and frightening in equal measure. It’s the first successful use of cultural relativism in the Realms novels thus far.
Eke Bayalun, Yamun’s villainous stepmother and wife (it’s a long story), is an interesting character. She’s an ambitious woman in a strictly patriarchal society, scheming to assume power by pulling the strings behind the powerful men because there’s no other method of advancement open to her. And it doesn’t hurt that she hates Yamun for killing his father. (Man, what a messed-up family.) Instead of being just another “evil stepmother” archetype, she ends up being fairly complex, the leader of her own faction in Tuigan society which Yamun has to placate and step carefully around to hold his alliance together. Her cat’s-paw Chanar is probably the flattest character here, a none-too-bright general who’s always alternately sulking or raging at some perceived slight.
Quite good, all things considered. I never encountered any passages which were bad enough to break my immersion and make me think “I really wish someone had had time to give this another pass,” as I have with some of the previous books. Cook crams each scene full of details both large and small which sell the reader on the people and events he’s describing.
Dust, churned up by thousands of horses, settled into everything. To Koja it seemed that his robes crackled with the stuff. Dust coated his scalp, which now bristled and itched with a stubby growth of hair; it caked on his eyelids and lined his throat. The hot afternoon sun raised tiny drops of sweat that ran like mud down his arms.
Little details like that last sentence there make me very pleased with a writer.
This book was a pleasant surprise. The setting is rich and meticulously described, the cast of characters is well-executed and largely stereotype-free, and the plot is a very far cry from your usual heroic fantasy quest. It was quite an entertaining novel, all told, and by my not-terribly-high standards for Forgotten Realms novels that would easily be enough to earn it an A.
Unfortunately, like the previous book, I’m going to have to dock it slightly in my estimation for its wholesale lifting of real-world cultures — not just the fantasy Mongols, but also fantasy Tibetans and Chinese, without the slightest effort made to disguise or remix the source material. I understand that it might not have been the author’s fault, since the whole “fantasy counterpart cultures” thing was established in the tabletop game’s setting material a couple years before this book came out, but I still find it frustrating and immersion-killing. I can only imagine how much better this book, and the Forgotten Realms setting as a whole, could have been if they’d done less copying and more imagining.