the Little Red Reviewer

The Mongoliad, by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, etc. . .

Posted on: June 5, 2012

The Mongoliad, by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, Erik Bear, Cooper Moo, E.D. deBirmingham and Joseph Brassey

published in April 2012 by 47North

where I got it: purchased new

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I’ll buy just about anything with Neal Stephenson’s name on it. Environmental thriller, or multi thousand page epic, if he writes I want to read it, and so far I’ve always been rewarded (even when that reward comes after me wanting to bash my head against the wall). So when I heard about The Mongoliad a while ago, a group project between Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, and a handful of other talented authors, to say I was excited was a vast understatement. And when I brought that beautiful softly bound grey book home from the bookstore a few weeks ago? Why yes, yes there was singing and dancing. Red was a happy girl indeed.

It’s 1241 and the Crusaders still have a lot of work ahead of them.  C’nan, a scout and Binder of eastern descent, has been sent to assist a secretive order of Knights who are making their way east across northern Europe. In what will become Poland, Onghwe Khan is waiting for more supplies and troops and sets up a fighting circus in the meantime. Christians who participate in the fighting circus have the opportunity to win the freedom of all of Christendom. C’nan and the Knights come across the fighting circus and hatch a plot to rid themselves of the Mongol threat once and for all. I was most interested to learn more about C’nan’s binding skills, as it is implied early on that this is very important in the grand scheme of things.

It’s 1241 and Khagan Ogedei, son of Ghengis Khan, is slowly drinking himself to death. His brothers and sons are swarming across Asia and Europe, and Ogedei sits, trapped in a palace, besieged by courtiers and ambassadors, when all he wants out of life is the sky above him and a horse beneath him. One of those ambassadors, Gansukh, has been sent by Ogedei’s brother to help the Khagan get his drinking and his life under control. With the help of a beautiful tutor, Gansukh must learn that palace life is even more dangerous than the life of a soldier,  and that Ogedei’s problems are larger than his drinking vessel. Along with Ogedei’s flashbacks of his father, this was the more interesting plotline for me.  In fact, even in the other plot line, the Mongol characters were far more interesting than the Europeans.

A purely historical fiction so far, there is no magic or mages, no fantasical elements at all so far, so I’m loathe to call this non-western-fantasy. The few humans who have “superhuman” moments do so through pharmaceutical means. The time period has obviously been extensively researched, and part of the birth of the story was the hand to hand combat studies the authors undertook. I rarely enjoy fight scenes that read like stage direction, and The Mongoliad has some damn good fight scenes.

While the story itself might not be completely unique, the way the book came about is. You can read more up on it here, but basically The Mongoliad was born out of Neal, Greg, and a bunch of their friends learning western martial arts, i.e.; sword fighting. An idea was born, and from that the beginnings of a screenplay, and from that the start of a novel, and from that an online community that existed solely for fans and friends to interact with the authors, offer feedback and fan art, in a sense to crowdsource the ultimate ending of the story. Subscribers received special content via cellphone app, and alpha and beta readers had editing access to the wiki.That’s pretty damn unique, if you ask me, and only possible with types of technology that didn’t exist five years ago. Part of that website is still members only. The vast quantity of research, beta reading, fan interaction and physical work that went into this book is astounding.

And therein lies part of the problem I had with The Mongoliad. I felt like I was coming into the story five or six volumes in, not at the beginning, like I was the socially inept person butting my way into a conversation after all the interesting things had been said and all that was left were inside jokes.

The other problem I had with The Mongoliad is a far worse one: I found the book mostly boring.  The  plot line with C’nan and the Knights just wasn’t interesting enough to keep my attention. I didn’t feel invested in any of the characters, and more than once I asked myself “who is that guy again?”.  While the plot with Gansukh at Ogedei’s palace is more interesting, still, not much happens that kept my attention. To top it off, I felt teased. Like the writers were telling me if I only read a few more pages, a few more short chapters that I would be rewarded with secrets that had been alluded to danced around. what the hell is this, Amway?

I got to the end, and there was no reward for me.  No cliffhanger, no hints, no insights, no nothing. Plot points that were overtly hinted at early on were never visited again, or at least not revisited to my satisfaction.

Writing experiment or not, if I don’t feel like I got anything out of it, it’s a fail.  As a  highly detailed yet only mildly interesting historical narrative during the time of the Mongol invasion of Europe, it’s a success, but when I look at the list of contributing authors, I expected so much more from them.

Ya’ll know I don’t enjoy writing these negative reviews, but  The Mongoliad was an utter disappointment. I don’t even mind that it was historical fiction marketed as epic fantasy, what I mind most was that with all that writing talent they came up with an epically uncompelling story.

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8 Responses to "The Mongoliad, by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, etc. . ."

Sounds like a missed opportunity. Won’t be going there then!
Thanks for the heads up.
Lynn :D

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You’re absolutely right about the Knights being very forgettable. They seem almost interchangeable within the story. The only one whose name I can remember is Persival, because he not only has a recognizable name, but he also is the one who glows from flashes of insight from god (which is the only “supernatural” moments of the story that I could see). Still, because Stephenson’s name is attached to the project, I’m going to wait for the next book and hope it gets better.

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that’s a shame….I’ve been a huge fan of Greg and Neal for over 2 decades…I guess they can’t all be gems. Thanks for the tip…Like Lynnsbooks posted above me here, I’ll probably pass on this one as well…

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I think more often than not when you get that many writers collaborating on a novel – different story if it had been a short story collection – it’s going to be a hash up, and this sounds just that. I wasn’t that drawn to it before, this confirms my gut feeling to stay clear. Thanks as always.

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Thanks for the heads up. I bought this the other day at the discount ($.99) so at least I didn’t lose too much. I had a feeling this might not live up to expectations.

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Thanks for the heads-up, Red. A friend of mine recently read this book, and it’s interesting to contrast your view with hers. I guess I’ll be giving this one a miss……

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Good job I remembered you reviewing this. It’s on Kindle Daily Deal (UK) for 99p today. Guess I will pass it up, your complaints sound like the sort that would turn me off a book.

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You know, I had not thought about the crowdsourcing superfan secret handshake aspect of the larger project until you mentioned it above. thinking on how this book is more an end byproduct of this much larger project, how all sorts of people had the inside tract, then yes, this book could make one feel like the socially inept person butting her way into a conversation.

But I think I will still ‘eavesdrop’ on the Books 2 and 3 as I enjoyed the story quite a bit. And it might have something to do with Luke Daniels narrating the books too.

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