The Mongoliad, Book II

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

Reviewed by Michael Potts

The first time I visited the western United States was to present a paper at a conference in Boulder, Colorado. On the van drive from the Denver airport to the hotel in Boulder, I was amazed at how a plateau stretched for miles before ending at faraway mountains. The expansiveness of the West compared to the East was an awe-filled experience.

If any word can be used to describe Book Two of the series, The Mongoliad (read our review of Book One here), it would be “expansive.” First, the story is geographically expansive, with settings ranging from Rome to Eastern Europe to the steppes of Russia to the edges of China. As scenes shift from place to place the reader gets a sense of the scope of the largest land empire in history, The Mongol Empire. Although the series is alternate history, it presents a sense of being “in” the world of the Mongol invasions of Europe that is more vivid than reading an actual historical account.

Second, the book is expansive in the number of named characters—there are fifty-seven who are listed with short descriptions in a helpful “Cast of Characters” at the beginning of the book. The reader is lost in a grand adventure full of political intrigue and murder (in Rome as the Cardinals select a new Pope), a Mongol Khagan (emperor)  with a drinking problem and his faithful advisor who tries to keep the emperor’s love for liquor under control, a Chinese slave attempting to escape Mongol captivity, and a nifty fight scene near the end of the volume. The Shield-Brethren remain key characters, but the reader discovers a dint in their armor as one thoughtless slip-up leads to tragedy.

The descriptions the authors use are vivid, and one can picture the grand steppes of Asia, the glint of full-armored knights in sunlight, and the action of individual combat. A description of the body of a strangled man pulls no punches, describing the stench of recent death in vivid, stomach-churning detail.

Although the book is an enjoyable read overall, it does have one major weakness. I realize the story is epic in proportion, but the sheer number of characters at times slowed down the pace of the story, even with frequent scene shifts. The amount of time it takes to develop characters to the point that the reader cares about them causes the story to drag, especially until the last third of the book when the pace picks up. Even so, minor characters seem sketchy—the major characters, such as the Shield-Brethren, seem real, and the relationship between Ögedei Khan and his advisor, Yelu Chucai, is poignant and allows the reader to develop sympathy for both characters. Still, so much is going on that this reader tends to get mired in the detail.

A major strength of the book is that the reader gains sympathy for both the Christians and the Mongols in a war that, to a great degree, is religiously motivated. No group is presented in an idealized way. Christian knights have their own conflict between the Shield-Brethren and the Livonian Order, which only hurts Christian Europe in its desire to defeat the Mongol Empire. The sleazy intrigue of the College of Cardinals with its hypocrisy and psychopathic behavior by at least one cardinal is described without denying the sincerity and deep faith of many of the other cardinals. The Mongols are also shown at their best and at their worst. The reader gains a sense both that the Mongols are not as bad as the Christians believe them to be, and that the Christians are not as bad as the Mongols believe them to be. Characters are a mix of good and bad traits, as are people in real life.

To me, one of the most intriguing characters is Father Rodrigo Bendrito. He is carrying an important message to the Pope, but the Pope dies, and Rodrigo is dragged into the meeting of the College of Cardinals, locked up by a Roman senator, where they are to select a new Pope. There, Father Rodrigo is mistaken for a cardinal. All of this is taking place at the same time that Father Rodrigo’s mind is unstable--he believes he is responding to a prophecy from God, and he, like some of the other Christian characters, is subject to visions. His confusion serves to put him and his mission at risk, but it also serves to keep him out of trouble, creating an aura of simple innocence about him. I want to know what happens to him in the next book of this series.

Despite some flaws, The Mongoliad series thus far is a grand achievement--seven authors are successful in creating an epic in which the continuity of the plot is not lost despite the presence of multiple authors’ voices. It presents a world of hard fighting and survival combined with mysticism and visionary characters. I recommend the series to all readers interested in fantasy, history, medieval history, and alternative history.