The previous book in the series ended on a low note, pounding home a bitter note of chauvinism that presaged some of Frankowski’s work on the late 1990s. It also ended on the cusp of Poland’s fight against the Mongols in 1241, except in this alternate timeline, Conrad has industrialized Poland, starting a flight school, mass-produced modern weapons of war, and is in the process of training and arming about 150’000 Polish peasants to fight against an incoming horde effectively 3 million strong.
Conrad assumes the invading force will be about a million Mongols; in an interlude, his uncle Tom reveals the true number to be about three million in total, including the enslaved populations of the Mongols’ previous conquests (Kiev, for instance, and other parts of Poland east of the Vistula). In fact, this is wildly inaccurate, even for a novel of alternate history. The most accurate estimates of the time put the number of active invading Mongols at about 10’000, and only 8’000 by the battle of Legnica (the defending Polish army had between 10’000 and 30’000); Frankowski was off by a factor of 300. His characterization of Mongols themselves is likely fabricated as well. It is true that the Mongols swept through much of the Middle East and Europe, utterly destroying and depopulating cities which defied them: a group of Muslim exiles in the previous book told the tale of the city of Urgench, in which 50,000 Mongols supposedly killed 24 Urgench citizens each (though this is likely a severe exaggeration). In Frankowski’s universe, however, Mongols also let old clothes rot off their skin, and were brutal savages, enjoying the torture and mutilation of those whom they conquered. In fact, while Mongols were not averse to slaughter, they were too efficient to engage in the order of twisted sadism that Frankowski ascribes to them, especially in the next book.
It is easier and more fun for Frankowski to write about a sensationalized and despicable enemy, however, and Conrad’s 150’000-man army would have made short work of the invading Mongols, with or without modern technology. It’s a rather big fudging of history, but I suppose one can’t complain too loudly, since it’s a novel of alternate history, and science fiction to boot.
Though Conrad has definite plans for defense (initial front on the Vistula with his armed steamboats, backed up by the aforementioned 150,000-man infantry), he is largely abandoned by the rest of the Polish nobles; the dukes of Eastern Poland refuse to rally anywhere west and leave their lands undefended; Conrad must disobey his own liege lord, Duke Henryk, since the latter wants to rally away from the Vistula, where Conrad has invested so much manpower and technology. This essentially leaves—as we knew it would—Conrad to save the day.
Though it begins with Conrad wearing his engineer/manager hat, this is the most war-heavy book so far, as it centers around the battle on the Vistula river and the infantry battle at Sandomierz. It is also one of the shortest, even with a moderate appendix of post-war data and fits and starts of an epilogue. This was, at one time, considered to be the end of the series, or at least was made to seem that way. The appendix, after all, talks about Conrad’s eventual retirement(!) and ends with vague and taunting “There were interesting times.” But the narrative stop was abrupt; before the smoke had even cleared, the book was moving on to a distant and perfunctory epilogue.
It is therefore somewhat of a weak point in the series: the narrative arc has been building to this event for three books now, but the coverage was muddled, and the whole affair somewhat mismanaged by the author. I personally chalk it up to the difficulties inherent in departing the geeky fun of the anachronistic engineer and moving to troop movements and river battles: Frankowski is not as good at writing war as he is technology, and that’s not entirely bad. Even better, he manages to improve his performance in the next book, which has all the juicy action that really should have been a part of The Flying Warlord.