At some point in the past year or so, Beth* presented me with a paperback novel called The Mongoliad: Book One. She had gotten in on an Amazon sale for next to nothing; it caught her attention because she recognized Neal Stephenson’s name from other works on my bookshelf. I didn’t actually get around to reading it, largely because I am not a fan of starting trilogies without being able to finish them shortly thereafter.
I kept an eye on the release dates for the next two books, but the series kind of slipped my mind until I was going thru my Amazon wishlists a few months back and came across the fact that all three volumes had been released; there were also numerous Kindle-exclusive short stories that tied in to what was now called the “Foreworld Saga.” Furthermore, special hardcover editions of each Mongoliad book had been released which included an additional short story and illustrations by the amazing [amazon_link id=”1401238629″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Mike Grell[/amazon_link].
A little more digging revealed that the entire series is a kind of experiment in collaboration and multi-media storytelling started by Stephenson; he was displeased with the authenticity of his fight scenes in another series, and so wanted to team with other authors and martial arts enthusiasts to create a series with realistic melee combat and military engagements.
Beth was awesome enough to get me the hardcover editions as an anniversary present, on the condition that I actually start reading them and review them here on the site. I recently wrapped up the first volume, which was comprised of the main novel and a short story called “Sinner” that serves as a kind of prologue.
The story takes place in an alternate-history version of the 13th century, and the authors have done a great job of researching the time period before using it to their own ends: Between the crusades and infighting, most of Europe has been left open to potential invasion by the descendants of Genghis Khan, and dark forces work unseen to bring more chaos to the world. Christendom’s last hopes reside with the Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae (Knights of the Virgin Defender) a brotherhood of warrior-scholars who embark on a suicide mission to stop the Mongol horde.
The story is told from the perspective of numerous dialogue characters, each one written by a different author, and spanning several sides of the conflict. In addition to members of the Order, there is the mysterious young woman serving as their guide; a Mongol warrior sent into the fray of the khans’ courts; the Chinese slave woman who has been assigned to teaching him politics; and two warriors assigned to fight against the Order in a tournament for one of the khans.
The story being told is not groundbreaking, but is full of enough adventure and intrigue to keep things rolling along. I wouldn’t say that I disliked any of the dialogue characters, but I definitely had my favorites, such as Gansukh, the “Mongol of the Steppes in a Khan’s Court.” The initial sense of frustration he feels at his situation results in a genuine payoff as he learns how to play the political games of the palace regulars. Unfortunately, my favorite character isn’t introduced until the third act, and only gets two dialogue sections before the book ends.
That storyline, like almost every major plot point, goes unresolved when the book just kind of ends before anything gets wrapped up. While I understand that this is a trilogy, it started as a serialized set of stories, and the ending is the only time that really created an issue for me. The final dialogue segments for most characters don’t even have the panache of a good cliffhanger; it just feels like the collaborators went “Well that’s a good spot to leave off at before the next book.” While I certainly understand not wanting to make the first volume too long just to wrap up a few loose ends, the third volume is massive compared to the first two; I can’t help but wonder if a better balance of material could have been struck.
I’d also like to point out that my genuine interest in all of the characters does not extend to all of the authors involved in creating them; none of the collaborators are bad writers, but there is a distinct lack of polish to some of the sections. There is also the issue of multiple writers presenting their own version of the same characters, and the resulting viewpoints don’t always match up. Fans of any franchise that has an “expanded universe” involving novels written by multiple authors will be in familiar territory. The novel doesn’t suffer too much overall, but it was annoying to see an interesting character from one section be presented blandly in another.
Characters and plot aside, no good crusade-era adventure story would be worth it without some action scenes, especially when the entire project was started out of one author’s desire to write better combat. I can confirm that the Mongoliad serves up plenty of sword, shield and spear action, but there’s a reason Bruce Lee’s movies had a bigger audience than his technical demonstrations. To the right reader, I’m sure the novel’s action scenes read fluidly and evoke a sense of appreciation; for me, the amount of time spent trying to figure out the descriptions destroyed any sense of tension or urgency in the fights. In many cases, the dialogue between characters is sharper than any of the swords they’re wielding, and often has higher stakes.
The last thing I’d like to address is the short story “Sinner” that takes place before the novel, which introduces us to the Order and sets the tone of the Foreworld universe for new readers. I have a strange complaint, in that I found this story to be more compelling than the rest of the book. Perhaps it benefits from being a shorter, more concise piece that was written by a single author; that doesn’t change the fact that I would have rather read an extended version of this than the novel I ended up with.
The short still involves the Order – two knights named Andreas and Raphael, who are characters that appear in the larger work – but it also contains a fair amount of supernatural elements as well. I was therefore surprised when the novel itself only hinted at fantastical happenings; perhaps the next two books will shed more light on the subject. We also get a better grasp of the characters involved than we do in the larger work, with the exception of possibly Gansukh. Until I read the next novel, “Sinner” remains the best part of this work, in my opinion.
*= the significant other
[amazon_link id=”1612182364″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]The Mongoliad: Book One can be purchased on Amazon for only $7.99[/amazon_link]