The Mongoliad: Books Two and Three
Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, et al
A review of the first volume of The Mongoliad over at Dab of Darkness reminded me that I have yet to write about either of the other books in the series. I talked about Book One here, giving some introduction and background, but didn’t talk as much about the story. It was hard to say much at the time, and even harder to put Book Two on the psychiatrist’s couch, because this isn’t a proper trilogy really, just a very long serial published in three parts. Now that all three books are out in the wild, it’s much easier to take stock of the story. There won’t necessarily be spoilers in this post, but little of it will make any sense unless one has, at the very least, given my first summary a glance.
The volumes under the microscope today follow the same three stories from the first book, but add one more. The originals focus chiefly on the Shield Brethren, a Templar-esque order in Northern Europe, and the Mongols at the Khan’s court. We follow one group of Shield Brethren in a hopeless quest across Asia to assassinate the Khan and another trying to cause havoc on the front lines closer to home. In Karakorum, the brave Mongol warrior Gansukh tries to drag the Khan out of an alcohol-induced haze. New to the story is a semi-related bit in Rome surrounding the election of a new Pope, tied primarily to the other storylines through the Binders, a secret society of women that span the known world as messengers.
I’ll give some opinions on the books here, before moving into a deeper look at random bits and bobs. I enjoyed the first volume well enough, but it wasn’t essential reading. Fun, but it didn’t grab me by the lips and yank. Things pick up in the second book, and by the third, the story rushes on like a heavy cavalry charge. The extensive world building and OCD level attention to detail is the main offender here, I think, as it takes 5-600 pages just to get everything out in the open. Once the (slowly hardening) foundation has been laid, the characters can prance across without getting bogged down in the wet cement of historical accuracy. In other words, Book Three is a great deal more fun than Book One. Not that this is unexpected when Neal Stephenson is at the helm. While The Mongoliad is understandably diluted stuff, his influence looms large over the whole affair. The Number Two name on the cover, Greg Bear, is also no stranger to leisurely narrative, so no reader should be surprised that we’re dealing with some serious plot inertia here.
In terms of story, I found the three initial arcs to be most compelling. I don’t know why exactly the Pope thing got tacked on, since it has only a passing relation to the central characters. It was interesting reading, to be sure, but the authors could just as easily cut the whole thing out, released it as a separate book, and nobody would have noticed its absence. The Mongols and the Shield Brethren, on the other hand, come together in a most satisfying way. Not so satisfying that sequels are impossible, and indeed things are set up for plenty more stories, but there is closure. It was worth it, at the end, to have plowed through so many pages.
Several aspects of the story have provoked further thought. I don’t know a whole lot about this particular time period, so I spent much of the book trying to figure out what is historical and what is fiction. I am guessing that the Shield Brethren are an original creation, as well as the Binders. Of course they are two of the most interesting, what with the hinted pagan origins of the Brethren and the possibilities of a secretive clan of far wandering women. On the other hand, the Brethren may very well be one of a multitude of militant orders that existed at the time. I have a hard time imaging how the Binders would have kept their people straight. I assume that most of the major events, like the battles at Mohi and Kiev, or the conflicts surrounding the papal election, are more or less as portrayed, though anything involving the Khan is probably pure conjecture. All the while I am building these assumptions, I am reminded of Umberto Eco’s afterword to The Name of the Rose. Therein he confides that in all the letters he receives about the book, the plot points people accuse him of fabricating are the most accurate, while the things we all assume to be true are pure fiction.
The whole of the third book left me wondering about magic in this world as well. The Khan’s Spirit Banner may or may not have magical properties. Knights may receive divine guidance, or they may be hallucinating. The Holy Grail may or may not exist, and might have special powers. The authors are coy about it all, making me wonder what direction future books will go in.
I was mildly skeptical when I finished the first book, wondering if The Mongoliad would rise above the world building and slow burning narrative. It was fun, to be sure, but I withheld full judgment on the overall quality. It was clear by the end of the second book that things would pick up and surprises were in store. The last book hurtled on like a horde of Mongols riding a maglev train, leaving roughly as much devastation in their wake as one would expect. Good times. The whole thing will require patience, but is definitely worth it for those interested in a Hard SF take on historical fiction. There is plenty of room in this sandbox to play; I am intensely curious to see where things go next.
Update: Stefan is right in the comments to request an elaboration of the “Hard SF” bit. I talked about this a little in my first review, but probably didn’t explain it well there either. What I am referring to is the attention given to accuracy and the way things work in the story. (Stephenson does this with The Baroque Cycle and has spoken in interviews about having an SF mindset when pursuing historical fiction.) The most obvious example of this is the sword fighting, where weapons, their uses, and the results thereof are awarded the lavish detail usually reserved for FTL drives or Dyson Spheres. The Papal Conclave is another reflection of this, as the authors spend as much time illuminating the machinations (historically accurate, according to Stefan’s research) as they do moving the story forward. One could sweep this all up into the dustpan labelled “World Building,” but I think it’s more of a nuts and bolts thing than drawing some maps and making up a few dynasties. I wonder if this makes any sense, or is just me pulling rhetorical devices out of a top hat.