Too many plots? – ‘The Mongoliad book 2’ by Neal Stephenson and co.

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.


3 thoughts on “Too many plots? – ‘The Mongoliad book 2’ by Neal Stephenson and co.

  1. I can see how this series would be uninteresting to someone that knows nothing about geography or history of Europe (except the what one have read in the books). I can understand why most Americans wouldn’t like it. You have no platform for comparison really. I as European have been to most of these places and I’ve seen the ruins of some of the castles that remain there till today. During the reading I can feel the air of the open vast steps, I can see the rivers and it is easy to me literally see the whole area. If you’ve never been to Legnica (99.99% of people don’t even know where it is lol) and seen a castle only on the picture than I can only imagine how crippled will be your perception of this story. I’m pretty sure that this book would be very popular in Europe and may even become somewhat of a “cult” book for many people. Like Kate (see above) – not reading something because of someone’s very subjective review is narrow minded to say the least. Too many plots? I am very sorry that you can’t keep up and there’s “nothing binding” for you there. It is many plots but it is easy to keep up with and I can see the whole picture without really straining my brain….

    1. Hi Andrew Thanks for taking the time to comment. You are of course entitled to your own opinions, and I’m glad you enjoyed the book more than I did. I do have to respond to a couple of your points though. Firstly, I’m British, and therefore European, we have Castles too. Second I’ve been to (and ridden on) the Mongolian Steppe and can therefore, well imagine it. Indeed, there is no problem with the quality of the description in this book, but there is just too much of it.

      Just as a detailed description of the jet engine does not make an exciting story about the Battle of Britain, there is more to a good historical novel than laborious details about armour and buildings.

      As for the multiple plot lines, there is no problem working out what is going on, as almost nothing happens in any of them. There is no brain strain. What we have here are separate stories liked by time and location, but for me it’s not coherent enough to be considered a quality novel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s