Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Mongoliad

Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite authors, and when I heard that he was collaborating with Greg Bear and several other authors on The Mongoliad, a story about a group of Western warrior-monks struggling against the Mongol invasion of Europe, I couldn't wait to read it. This past Christmas, I got my hands on the first two books of the Mongoliad.

What a disappointment. The books tell a fairly bland story of combat and intrigue across 13th century Europe and Asia. There are far too many characters, and too little time is spent on each of them to really develop much sympathy for them. The few characters I was actually interested in appeared all too rarely, such as Cnan, a member of a mysterious organization known as the Binders. I liked her "why am I hanging out with these suicidal murdering lunatics" attitude, but in the second book, she was mostly brushed aside in favor of another Binder named Ocyrhoe. Especially problematic was the way that these two seemed to be members of entirely different organizations, as if the authors writing these two characters hadn't agreed between them beforehand exactly how the Binders operated.

In fact, there are a variety of new characters inserted into the story in the second book, along with a whole new subplot centering around the selection of a new pope. This plot appears to have little connection if any to the rest of the story. It's possible this storyline will link up with the others in a later book, but at this point it could be sliced out of the second book without any impact on the rest of the story.

Also, before reading the Mongoliad, I had heard about Ogedei Khan, and his alcoholism, and the story about how, when he was cautioned to limit himself to one cup a day, he chose to obey this suggestion by equipping himself with an enormous drinking cup. This story also appears in the Mongoliad, but it is given an unusual twist, which in my opinion was implausible, if not incomprehensible.

Any wit or imagination that Neal Stephenson or Greg Bear might have injected into these books is utterly lost in a sea of dull, uninspiring prose. The first book in particular suffers from a surfeit of lengthy descriptions of the terrain; while this is a subject of paramount importance to the characters trying to cross that terrain, I myself could have stood to hear less about the construction of the rivers and plains and rock outcroppings and meadows and so on and so forth.

For anyone who is interested in hearing some truly compelling stories of the Mongols during the time of Genghis Khan and his descendants, I highly recommend listening to the "Wrath of the Khans" podcasts from Hardcore History. Dan Carlin's history podcasts are always entertaining and educational, and the Mongol series is no exception.