The Mongoliad: Volume One
Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, et al
The Mongoliad is a Northwest All-Star affair. Seattle heroes Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear lead a mostly local team of writers that created a serialized, alternate history of the Mongol invasion of Europe; Amazon subsidiary 47North is now publishing the completed and re-edited manuscripts for those of us who prefer to read on dead trees. (Amazon is also based in Seattle, just in case any readers out there are unaware.) Information about the genesis of the project and its attempts to find new ways to deliver content are covered in more detail at mongoliad.com, also at the Subutai homepage. (Subutai is the corporation formed to handle the business end of the Mongoliad, as well as other future related projects in various mediums.) The back end is almost as interesting as the book itself, but I will spare readers a rehash. It is best to go directly to the source this time.
The book is probably best categorized as alternate history, as the authors suggest that the setting is one or two steps removed from our world. Within the first book however, I wasn’t sharp enough to spot any obvious differences, so one could probably call this historical fiction as well, if one really wants to pick nits. Mongoliad follows a similar pattern as much of Stepehnson’s other work, most notably The Baroque Cycle, where he deals with history seen through an SF lens. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but I would argue that there is a way to approach historical fiction with the forward looking, problem solving mindset of hard SF. (Stephenson has said the same in past interviews.) The Mongoliad is less obvious in this than The Baroque Cycle and its Enlightenment scientists, but there is a certain fidelity to The Way Things Work in effect here, rather than The Way Things Were, if that makes sense. Engineering takes top priority.
The authors track several characters in three groups: A Mongol encampment in Northern Europe, a group of knights venturing eastward through Russia to assassinate the Khan, and the Khan’s court in Mongolia. Characters on both sides of the conflict alternate narration duties, giving the perspectives from the knights, their guide, the Mongols, slaves of various Eastern extractions, and the Khan himself. Because this was written as a serial, each chapter is a discreet, cliff-hanging unit. The authors were apparently shuffled around between storylines and characters, which gives the book a certain unity, but there are still bits and pieces that were clearly written by one or another of the team. This may be jarring enough to turn off some people, though I wasn’t overly troubled by it.
One thing that I’m sure will bother some readers is the painstaking attention paid to fighting. The book apparently grew out of Subutai’s interest in Western fighting techniques; they put that knowledge to use in the detailed action sequences. Not everyone will be interested enough in how a broadsword can be effectively used against a naginata to pay attention through duels that march through multiple chapters, but that concerns the authors not a whit. I found it interesting enough, despite my pacifist tendencies, though it is a bit hard to imagine Greg Bear caring so deeply about correct sword grip. (Not saying that he doesn’t, just that it seems a bit odd.)
It’s a little hard to review this book well, as it is the first of three volumes. I am debating reading the rest online rather than waiting for the dead tree editions, which would both satisfy my curiosity and allow for more complete reactions. Book One is certainly not a stand-alone novel and ends, if not with a cliffhanger, then a notable lack of resolution. I’m not sure it will make by Best of 2012 list (though it might in completion), but it is certainly a fun ride. I look forward to the rest of the story.
Rating: Weeks one through three of a new season. A taste of the action to come, without any real indication of how good the season will be.