Book: The Mongoliad: Book One
Book Rating: B (85 / 100)
If Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead had been written by Guy Gavriel Kay, The Mongoliad would have been the final result.
Fans of historical fiction are certain to count The Mongoliad as a staple of the genre, and hardcore Neal Stephenson won’t be disappointed, either. However, The Mongoliad suffers from the same shortcomings as most books of the historical fiction genre. It is a bit dry, due to the historical tone of the narration, a bit overly cerebral, due to the necessity of explaining the details of medieval living, and a bit slow due to the sheer volume of exposition required by those explanations. The overall effect is the The Mongoliad is not a heavy piece of reading, but that much is obvious simply by virtue of Neal Stephenson’s name on the cover.
Pros: Highly authentic historical detail. Frequent, inventive battle scenes.
Cons: Unpronounceable character names. Little-to-no suspense. Slow start. Story pacing drags a bit. Sudden ending leaves the book feeling incomplete.
During the height of the Mongol conquests, twelve knights from an ancient order known as the Shield Brethren set out to prevent the invasion of Christendom by assassinating Khagan Ögedei, the Khan of Khans, in the hope of igniting a war of succession between the factions of the Mongol hordes. Told from the point of view of Cnan, a young woman acting as guide, the story follows the group’s journey through enemy territory into the heart of the Mongol empire.
Official: The first novel to be released in The Foreworld Saga, The Mongoliad: Book One, is an epic-within-an-epic, taking place in 13th century. In it, a small band of warriors and mystics raise their swords to save Europe from a bloodthirsty Mongol invasion. Inspired by their leader (an elder of an order of warrior monks), they embark on a perilous journey and uncover the history of hidden knowledge and conflict among powerful secret societies that had been shaping world events for millennia.
But the saga reaches the modern world via a circuitous route. In the late 19th century, Sir Richard F. Burton, an expert on exotic languages and historical swordsmanship, is approached by a mysterious group of English martial arts aficionados about translating a collection of long-lost manuscripts. Burton dies before his work is finished, and his efforts were thought lost until recently rediscovered by a team of amateur archaeologists in the ruins of a mansion in Trieste, Italy. From this collection of arcana, the incredible tale of The Mongoliad was recreated.
Atmosphere / Emotional Impact: C- (65 / 100)
Character development: B+ (90 / 100)
Pacing: B- (80 / 100)
Plot: B+ (90 / 100)
Prose: B+ (90 / 100)
World-building: A (100 / 100)
Usually, where there are seven names on a cover, you’re about to read an anthology. In the case of The Mongoliad, it a sign of a new media experiment in progress. You see, The Mongoliad isn’t so much a book as a bound collection of chapters that have been serialized online. Readers can subscribe to receive the chapters as they’re posted or wait for them to be published in three parts.
Don’t let that put you off, though. Despite being written collaboratively by seven of genre’s most distinctive voices, The Mongoliad is a Neal Stephenson novel through and through. That means you can expect a long, richly detailed read fraught with nerd-worthy minutia, protracted exposition, and action sequences that read like they were shot in bullet-time. In short, this is historical fiction for geeks and nerds. All others turn back.
Like most Neal Stephenson novels (and most books of historical fiction in general), The Mongoliad starts slowly as the world-building commences. Though the story itself is a simple read with a straightforward plot, it take some time to establish the 13th century mindset. Once the cast is assembled, though, the story moves along at a brisk pace. Far brisker than one might expect from a book build around the story trope of a group adventurers on an epic quest. (As signified by the Iliad reference in the title.)
The book is divided between the journey of a small band of knights as they make their way through Mongolian territory and the struggles of a young Mongolian warrior sent to court to save Genghis Khan’s heir from his on-going battle with alcoholism. Both stories are told in the kind of educational detail only found in a Stephenson novel. The descriptions are crisp, the characters are distinct and interesting, and the setting is stunningly authentic.
Due to the heavy historical detail and enormous cast of unpronounceable names, it takes a concerted effort to work through some of the book’s narration. On the whole, The Mongoliad is a much more pleasant experience if you listen to it as an audiobook to save yourself the effort of puzzling out the names while keeping an electronic copy on hand to assist with spelling out the terms you need to Google. The effort of deciphering the authors’ archaic terminology and tracking the movements of the characters through the geography of the ancient world are part of the book’s charm, and the sort of reader attracted to Neal Stephenson novels will consider the side trips of the internet to be a labor of love.
Meanwhile, there are five major action sequences and three chase scenes interspersed through the book to keep readers’ interest high. The exquisite authenticity of these martial sequences are the raison d’etre of The Mongoliad.
Character development is a bit austere in this first installment in the series, but the lack of interior character development is largely in keeping with the historical tone of the book. The authors’ eschew such modern conventions as protracted internal reveries and snappy dialogue for the sake of the book’s atmosphere, the solemnity of which sets the book apart from many other pieces of historical fiction.
The biggest shortcoming of the book is it’s abrupt ending. Readers should prepare to be frustrated. The book doesn’t end with a cliffhanger; it just ends. Subscribers to The Mongoliad project can continue reading. The rest of us just have to wait for the next book to hit shelves in September. Personally, I would advise readers to wait until all three books have hit the market before testing the waters. The anticipation is likely to be excruciating.
Wunderkind PR sent The Great Geek Manual a copy of an advance review copy of The Mongoliad at no cost. We extend our sincere thanks to them. However, the free copy did not influence the opinion of this reviewer.
If you enjoy this book, you may also enjoy these similar titles:
- Read an extract from The Mongoliad at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist.
- Read more about this project at Venture Beat.
- Visit The Mongoliad Facebook page.
- Visit the official The Mongoliad website.
- Visit the official website of author Greg Bear.
- Visit the official website of author Neal Stephenson.
- Watch a group video interview with the authors of The Mongoliad.