If you’ve read my review of the book of The Mongoliad, you’ll know I didn’t think much of it. In two words, it’s aimless and pedestrian. Since these adjectives could describe the opening four hundred pages of most books written by Neal Stephenson (an author I greatly admire) I thought I’d give book 2 a try.
My thoughts seem contrary to most others that I’ve read. I think the series improves with this volume (although it would have been difficult for it not to have done). There are still a frustrating number of disparate threads, but I found them more satisfying than those in the previous novel. Whilst something resembling a resolution seems frustratingly out of reach, the stories at least feel like they are building up a head of steam.
The novel opens with an entirely new thread. A fevered priest and young Magyar hunter arrive in Rome. They hope to gain audience with the Pope to warn of the impending invasion of the Mongol horde. Their plans are thrown into disarray when it turns out Pope Gregory IX has died. Bishop Rodrigo finds himself enmeshed in the election of a new pontiff. Fascinating though this is, it’s just another story-tree in a forest of plots.
The biggest problem with these books, for me, is that there is nothing binding the multitude of threads together (this despite two of the characters being ‘binders’). There is no unifying story propelling the reader on. As a result, if you were to pick up volume two without having read volume 1, I doubt you would struggle to work out what was going on. Certainly, a five page synopsis could fill in what you’d missed. There are even some events from book one that are barely referenced here, giving the unsettling feeling that the work as a whole is haphazard and under-edited.
The stories do strengthen towards the end, but not before a flabby middle section. Once again, people talk, walk and fight a lot, without doing very much. And yet… As the novel draws to a close the influence of Neal Stephenson starts to exert itself. The detail heavy seeds sown throughout the book, start to flourish. In contrast to volume one, each of the story threads are left at pivotal moments, and the novel finishes with a true sense of suspense.
The understanding built up between reader and author(s), over hundreds of pages, gives meaning to the slow burning machinations of the plot. It’s starting to feel like the series is a metaphor for the Steppe: immense, bland and featureless, but with an undeniable compelling beauty. Having said that, much as few people take time to visit the Mongolian Steppe, you have to wonder if reading 800 pages of (often) lumpen prose makes the Mongoliad a place worth visiting.