Review: The Mongoliad
Some reviews are difficult to write. Others fly off of my fingertips near light-speed. Some are simple. Others complex. But every once in a while, I come across one that seems to just be begging for discussion of a larger issue. This book sparked one of those latter types in me. The issue: writing character versus story.
THE MONGOLIAD, BOOK ONE (Amazon) is an interesting kind of book and not one that I come across every day. There are seven authors that collaborated to write it (Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey, E. D. deBirmingham, Cooper Moo, and Mark Teppo). Quite the list. Most of them are either established science fiction authors or new enough to the publishing scene that I couldn’t find a lot about the books they’d written besides what was on their Amazon author pages. As such I was kind of expecting to find this story to be very similar many other fantasy offerings that were written by science fiction authors. i.e.: not that good.
What I found kind of surprised me and kind of didn’t. As with other books that have multiple authors (I’m thinking mostly short story anthologies and such) there is a range of goodness to be had in this one. The story centers on the Mongol invasion of Europe, circa 1240 A.D., and is split between three major story lines. The first involves a group of moral knights that has been slated to fight in a Mongolian version of a gladiator arena but decide instead to embark on a quest to kill the Khan. The second story line, and one that engaged me the most, dealt with the Khan’s court and a couple of its participants. The third, and weakest of the three, is a string of connected characters portraying the “gladiators” fighting in the Mongolian arena.
For the most part, the writing is accessible and decent. World-building is quite sparse. The difference between the three story lines, although significant in locale, didn’t feel all that different from one another. The story-telling was also quite procedural. Each event led to the next, which led to another, and another, and so on. Characterization was very thin. Like on the level of 2-3% of what I would expect in a novel. Pretty abysmal.
In fact, the lack of characterization was easily one of the most difficult things about the book. Instead of reading characters in a story, the point-of-view characters became more like vehicles through which the story was told. With little to no character history to be had, and so very little of the story being about the impact that these events are having on our characters, they all became very cardboardish and one-dimensional. Most times they seemed to disappear entirely, and I forgot that they were even there. They were more like cameras on tripods, carried around for the benefit of the reader.
The one exception to this rule was Gansukh, a member of the group in the second story line I mentioned. He was sent by the Khan’s brother to try and reign in the Khan’s drinking problem. This single character was well-written, and although there were still times that I was left somewhat confused as to what he was going to do next to try and solve his problem, I found that I always enjoyed his part of the story. He engaged me, while the others in the book hardly even made an attempt.
As I thought about this difference between how each of the characters were written, I realized that this single point was really the crux of the problem surrounding my expectations of the novel. Because so often I find that science fiction authors write books that have stories impacted by a set of characters; whereas, fantasy authors tend to write books that have characters who are impacted by the stories surrounding them. I can’t say that one is necessarily better than the other, as both kinds of books are enjoyed by flocks of different people, but I have found that once the mix of the two techniques falls too far to the story side of the balance (as I see so often in science fiction novels), that I lose my ability to enjoy the story. I love character too much. It’s why THE FUGITIVE is one of my favorite movies of all time; why I was literally on the edge of my seat during my entire first viewing of INCEPTION; and why the end of UP had me weeping uncontrollably. It’s character that impacts me. Not story.
There are two last things I should mention. The first is the fairly egregious use of foreign words (I can’t really say “made-up” here because it could be that they’re all real, although in the context of the story for most readers they’ll be just as good as made-up) in the story. They’re the terms that get used once, explained, and then usually forgotten. The second is the complete lack of an ending. A better title for this book would have been, “THE MONGOLIAD, THE FIRST THIRD OF THE STORY”, as the thing just stops mid-stream.
Although I did seem to harp on the book quite a bit, it wasn’t a bad read. It just wasn’t all that good. Even though it was full of decent word-smithing, lots of historical fact, and had a large array of characters, it didn’t do anything to pull itself up out of the pool of mediocrity surrounding it. It never became more than its constituent parts. As such, I’m not really expecting much of the continuation of the story (there are still parts 2 and… ahem… books 2 and 3), but will probably get to it sometime soon.
- Recommended Age: 15+
- Language: Really mild for most of it, and then a few sections that get fairly vulgar
- Violence: Pretty gory and violent, sword fights, gladiator-like arena
- Sex: None