There is a theory, put forward in the film Clerks II (I think) that the ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is about little more than walking. It’s a theory with some validity. For ‘The Mongoliad it’s a cast iron truth. Whilst not entirely without merit, this is essentially a story about some heavily armoured knights doing little more than walk across two continents.
Regular readers of Neal Stephenson will know that many of his novels are slow to begin with. They offer long, detail heavy introductions, with asides and digressions. Plot seems secondary, yet Stephenson’s novels are peculiarly compulsive; you find yourself gripped. As his novels progress, the depth of his storytelling becomes apparent. Narrative threads appear that you never saw coming, that leave the reader dazzled by his brilliance. During the Mongoliad,when nothing much had happened for two hundred pages, I wasn’t overly concerned. I assumed that its threads would draw together in the final third to deliver a satisfying conclusion. This the first instalment of a new series, so perhaps I am being unfair, but this volume lacks any coherent conclusion at all.
The story starts with promise. Cnan is a ‘Binder’, one of a group of mysterious female spies. She tracks down a group of Christian Knights, with a message for their leader. From there a quest is born. Europe and Christianity are under threat from the rampant Mongol hordes. The knights decide the best way to neutralise the threat is to send a small detachment onto the Steppe to assisinate the Khan. The remainder of their force stays in a conquered city, to take place in a tournament. The tourney prize, the Mongols say, is the freedom of Europe. The third narrative strand is set inside the Khan’s palace. It follows a rough but intelligent Mongol warrior, and the Chinese slave who is forced to tutor him in court protocol.
The blurb to this book talks of ‘powerful secret societies that had been shaping world events for millennia’, and ‘uncovering hidden knowledge’. This knowledge is so well hidden with in the text, it seems not to exist at all. Neither does it feel like an alternate history as described in the blurb. It is merely a story, and a pretty dull one at that. The characters may not have existed, and the templar’s order may be fictitious, but, so far, one could hardly argue that history was being rewritten. Instead, we have a long journey punctuated by fights. The fight scenes are very realistic, and described in great detail, which some readers will love, but I found them too long and drawn out. Realism has been allowed to win out over excitement.
I find it hard to sum up this book. I’m tempted to suggest it’s flat because it was written by committee. It has no spark; blandness by collaboration? Maybe, but would I have noticed if I hadn’t known in advance? Stephenson’s books normally clock-in at around 1000 pages, this is 400. I would never have returned to Quicksilver if it had stopped at page four hundred, so perhaps is it too early to form a proper opinion of the Mongoliad too?
This does not feel like a book that was meant to be in a series. It’s not a neatly packaged first volume, but a larger book carved up. Whilst there are many loose threads, there is no climactic finale. Tolkien ended the Fellowship of the Ring with the scattering of the fellowship. This book fizzles out with a whimper. There are no characters/situations I am desperate to go back to; no cliffhangers begging resolution. All of the threads are cut off, apparently at random, with no apparent thought to maintaining tension.
All in all I was very disappointed with ‘The Mongoliad’ it contains some interesting characters and detailed combat scenes, but it is a monotonous read. I will carry on with book two, in the hope some of its promise is fulfilled. Stephenson likes to start slow but burn bright, I hope the Mongoliad does too.