Neal Stephenson, et al.: The Mongoliad, Book Two

When we last left our heroes – and villains – they were scattered from Rome to Mongolia. They still are. The quest to kill the Khagan, the Great Khan – and therefore to head off the inevitable Mongol invasion of Europe – is still underway: but it’s gotten bogged down in so many side trips and personality conflicts, seemingly more calculated to spin the tale out than anything else, that’s there’s no sense of forward motion – or even frustrated intention. The plot lines are so convoluted that they’ve gotten muddy, and there’s precious little sense of a cohesive story line.

Obviously, it’s time to introduce a new set of characters.

By this point in the series, the essentially modern personalities of our heroes – with very few exceptions – stand out with increasing abrasiveness. If it doesn’t bother you for a medieval character to say “Okay”, then it’s probable that you won’t be bothered as yet another young woman, engaged in yet another secret sisterhood’s dangerous business, overhears an Italian prince and a cardinal addressing one another in dialogue better suited to a corporate board room than a Roman palazzo. For my part, the endless anachronisms of character have gotten on my nerves, and the sad truth is that I’m finding I don’t really care about a single figure in the story.

There’s nothing real enough or entertaining enough between these covers to have captured me. The so-called warrior monks are a hodgepodge of stock figures from fantasy and myth, drawn from so many different cultures that the crowd seems to resemble the mismatched costumes in The Thirteenth Warrior more than the livery of any military order in history.

The only places that feel well-realized, and the only characters who ring true to their own time and place, are to be found among the Mongols. Someone in this crowd has done enough research on the Khanate to have constructed a story line that reminds me of some actual history. And not co-incidentally, the characters in this narrative thread are the only ones who carry a solid and consistent sense of their culture and their time.

At this point we have lost two of the best fighters from our band of warrior monks – and in both cases, the death happens almost off stage. The first one we saw coming – the sweep of fighters closing on the master’s unguarded back – but nothing of his last stand, nor even the ring of bodies around him to show what an ace he was. Indeed, the only reason we ever know he was a master of amazing skill is that we are repeatedly told he was. We are shown almost nothing, told practically everything. Our second loss is a master of daggers in the dark. Only he too goes down off-camera, leaving even his companions a little unsure of who actually did him in. This time the uncertainty is played for effect, but it still leaves the impression that the authors don’t quite know how to handle their best scenes… and have therefore chosen to skim over them.

And I fear I’m going to take my cue from them, and skim over the rest of the book. I was eagerly looking forward to reading this series, but my enthusiasm has been dulled to the point of boredom and then some. I’ve struggled through about five hundred pages of Mongoliad now, and the whole thing reads like a first draft. If they ever get around to a final draft, somebody wake me up. There’s a good story in here, if they could figure out what to do with it.

(47North, 2012)

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