THE MONGOLIAD by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, and others
The series of books known as THE FOREWORLD SAGA was a grand experiment in collaboration and serialized storytelling involving more than half a dozen authors, including Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear. So far it includes three novels (individually titled The Mongoliad, Books One, Two, and Three) which relate the central tale set during a near-history version of the Mongol invasions of the mid-thirteenth century. Also available are several short stand-alone prequels and “sidequests,” some in graphic format, which are set in the world during different time periods. Ambition in both scope and execution, the experiment seems to me to have been mostly successful, if not wholly so.
The story is epic and global in nature, following a huge cast of characters through multiple storylines across multiple continents, though the invasion and what to do about it lies at the core of all of them. The primary storylines involve:
- A small group of knights — the Shield Brethren — who set off for the heart of Mongol territory to try and kill the Khan of Khans (Ogedei, son of Ghengis) in an attempt to disrupt the Mongol invasion.
- A young Mongol warrior, Gansukh, sent by Ogedei’s brother to try and do something about Ogedei’s excessive drinking, which is threatening the Mongols’ sense of themselves.
- The events at Hunern, an Eastern European town held by the Mongols where the Khan has set up an arena to pit European champions against his own (many of whom are prisoners forced to fight). Here the Shield Brethren left behind try to work with the Khan’s unwilling champions to foment rebellion, all while having to face off against another, hostile, faction of Christian knights.
- A priest who witnessed the Mongol victory at Mohi and who afterward believes he has been visited by divine vision, a vision which leads him to Rome just after the death of the current Pope. He finds himself thrust into the machinations surrounding the election of a new Pope in ways he could never have imagined.
This barely scratches the surface of the plot and does even less to convey the cast of characters, but it will suffice for discussion of the sprawling story. The first plotline is the simplest and most straightforward — a familiar mission against all odds that pits a small band against more numerous foes, forcing them to rely on stealth and skill and almost ensuring the death (s) of at least some if not all of them. It’s also the one that I found least interesting for several reasons: that sense of familiarity, a feeling that it was a bit stretched out, episodic, and somewhat repetitive, and because I never really felt engaged by any of the characters, some of whom we don’t get to know very long (though even those we travel with for hundreds and hundreds of pages feel more like types than people, save for some — mostly involving Raphael — scattered moments. The deaths among them should have evoked more of an emotional response but never did, the one bit of character development that seemed to ensue (involving a woman named C’nan and her gradual acceptance of the Brethren as family) was a bit too forthrightly stated rather than shown for me, while the ending of this storyline (and of the tale in general but more on that later) was disappointing.
The storyline involving the priest is barely set up early on, feels far too detached from what is happening in the rest of the book, and never really engaged me in terms of events or character until the third book. There it took on an entirely different tone, becoming wholly enjoyable and lending a welcome sense of humor to what had otherwise been a relatively atonal work. This section was sly and playful for all its serious repercussions, and offered up a range of ideas: political and religious intrigue via the attempts to elect a new Pope with Cardinals, Senators, and the Holy Roman Empire all vying for influence; coming of age through the characters of a young boy and girl who find themselves mixed up in all the above, a murder, a secret society of women, divine prophecy, even the Holy Grail. It still never felt connected to other events (intellectually yes, but never in the gut), took too long to get going, and I felt had too abrupt a change in the priest’s presentation, but its latter portions were some of my favorite reading (especially the sparring between a pair of Cardinals and another Cardinal in charge of the vote).
The events in Hunern are a mixed bag. On the plus side, the rivalry between the two groups of knights is tense and compelling, adds a sense of villainy (even if the “bad guy” — the leader of the group opposed to the Shield Brethren thinks he’s doing the right thing all along), and has a sense of Greek tragedy about it in the way it seems foredoomed to end with bad results for all involved. This section also involves a few of the more interesting characters: Rutger, the leader of the Shield Brethren in town; Andreas, a young knight who chafes at not taking on the Mongols or the other knights more directly; Hans, a youthful survivor who acts as a go-between for the Khan’s prisoners and the Shield-Brethren, and the Flower Knight, one of those prisoners. On the other hand, the section bogs down a bit for me (as do some of the others in places) with the fighting detail, which can at times make the characters feel more like props, like vehicles to deliver a treatise on particular weapons or fighting techniques, rather than as characters or even vehicles of plot.
Gansukh’s story was the strongest section for me, even if, like the priest’s tale, it took a while to get going. The character himself was nicely challenged and conflicted in several ways: as a steppe warrior now thrown into a court, as a man torn between loyalty to his Khan of Khan’s and concern for his people overall, and finally, as a man in love with Lian, the Chinese slave tasked by the Khan’s main advisor to tutor him in the ways of the court (a romance one can see from the get-go). But Gansukh isn’t the only conflicted and complex character we meet in these sections: the Khan himself has a nice bit of self-awareness that we perhaps don’t see enough of early on but that comes into fullness by the third book, allowing him to give the reader some of the most emotionally affecting scenes in the series. Lian finds herself torn between her scorn for and hatred of the Mongols and her love for Gansukh and her imprisonment offers up a nice bit of tragedy and tension throughout, especially as she starts to turn her mind toward the possibility of an escape she’d never really much considered before.
While I had varying responses to each of the storylines, and while pacing is a problem at times, along with cohesion, and all of them felt drawn out to some extent, for the most part I was quickly and smoothly drawn into this shared world and those times when I did feel bogged down never really pulled me out for long, until towards the latter third or so of the final book. In fact, I would have expected cohesion and pace to be more problematic than they were, considering the number of authors and the serial nature of the work.
Unfortunately, while I was mostly engaged in the plot (less so with many of the characters) throughout, things did being to noticeably drag toward the close of Book Three, and then, well, and then. The ending, sadly, really degenerated for me. I won’t go into details for obvious reasons, but suffice to say that just about all of the close, in each of the various storylines, was marred by issues of implausibility (several of my notes say things like “don’t buy it” or “really?”) and just too much focus on fighting, which became repetitive and overly detailed. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so disappointed in an ending. And in a work where my pleasure has been mostly generated by plot rather than character or style (mostly smooth but rarely sparkling), a bad ending (or endings in this case) are magnified in the effect they have on my reading experience.
I did like the MONGOLIAD series, and would still recommend it, though I wish I liked it more — I wanted more engagement with the characters, more depth beyond just plot (this is a personal preference — I’d say it works quite well for most of its length as an adventure story), a tighter telling (I’d drop a few hundred pages probably, and perhaps the entire Rome storyline), and a much better ending (though the Khan gets a great scene in at the end). And I’m interested in picking up the other tales that spring up in this world. Like all good experiments, one hopes that its executors learn from both what worked and what didn’t. Recommended with all the above caveats.