Kam's Reviews > The Mongoliad: Book One

The Mongoliad by Neal Stephenson
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May 23, 12

bookshelves: historical
Read from May 20 to 23, 2012

When one is friends with people who love to read, and one talks to those people about not just the books being read, but their personal reading habits, things tend to come out: personal preferences in the material that people read. One of the most common has to do with spoilers. Some readers hate them like the plague, and I've known more than a few flame wars started online because someone decided to be a troll and posts the spoilers without warnings of any kind. I, on the other hand, am what I like to call "spoiler-proof:" I don't care if I'm given spoilers, since they don't affect my enjoyment of a book or film at all, but I don't seek them out, either.

Another divisive issue, I've found, is happy endings. Lots of people refuse to read a book if it ends sadly or badly for the characters, or put down a book almost immediately if they find out it's going to be tragic for a character they like. I'm in the other camp: I don't mind if a story ends tragically, as long as there's a reason for the tragedy. I don't mind happy endings, but I do tend to believe that that happy ending has to be earned. And besides, it's not like life itself always has happy endings, and I appreciate any kind of story that doesn't go out of its way to twist the world to force a happy ending when a tragic one would have been the more appropriate choice.

Another rather divisive issue is the question of cliffhangers, particularly at the end of a novel. There are a great many people out there who believe that a novel, especially in a series, has to have some definite end, instead of just leaving things dangling until the next book - a reasonable complaint, to be sure, especially when one begins talking about series that run to five books and up. I, on the other hand, don't mind in the least, and actually love a good cliffhanger. A good cliffhanger makes me want to turn the book over and shake it in the hopes that, if I do so, the next chapter will magically appear. It never does, of course, but at least I know, if I get the urge to do that, then the cliffhanger is a good one.

Awful cliffhangers, of course, are the ones that don't make me care much at all one way or another, or cut off the story at precisely the wrong moment. The latter have been rarer than the former, likely because a great many writers have enough sense to at least know when to cut a story or a chapter. In fact, they're so rare that I haven't encountered one like it outside of discontinued fanfiction.

Except here I am, staring at the conclusion of The Mongoliad: Book One, which was written by authors Eric Bear, Greg Bear, E.D. deBirmingham, Joseph Brassey, Cooper Moo, Neal Stephenson, and Mark Teppo, and asking myself if my copy isn't actually a misprint or something, given how terribly it cuts off. As I said, I like cliffhangers that leave me craving for the next book - rather like deliberately jumping off the edge of a bridge for a bungee jump. The ending for this book, however, rather feels like I've stepped into a hole without knowing the hole was there. I was expecting a cliffhanger, yes, but not this kind of cliffhanger.

I find this rather sad, as I do like this book. It began as an idea put forward by Neal Stephenson, which eventually metamorphosed into something that's now meant to be a multimedia, multi-platform fictional experience, an immersion into a world going beyond just books or comics or movies or video games. The book is just one aspect of it: something like a collation of a handful of written chapters, while the rest can be accessed via phone apps (I have one on my iPhone), or via the website. I have a basic membership, which prevents me from accessing all the available content. This includes not just chapters, but videos, maps, and character portraits, as well.

Unfortunately, much of this other content is unavailable without paying for premium membership, which costs US$49.99 (but let's round that up to $50). I find the need to pay for more content rather frustrating, though I suppose it will all come up in book format eventually (or hopefully). One can pay for the privilege of instant and immediate access to everything, if they so wish, but I would much rather wait. After all, now that they've published one book, the authors will have to publish the rest of it, and I can get the rest of the story then. I also hope that, when the book series has been concluded, the authors and whoever else is running this experience will open up the rest of the content for those of us who find the price of premium membership a little too rich for their blood (and given the conversion from Philippine peso to US dollar, it is very rich indeed). I am all for clever ways of making money, since creatives get short shrift for their work all too often, but there's also such a thing as being a bit too greedy.

This first book is an intriguing read: interesting enough to make the reader want to go find whatever stuff can be found online, maybe even pay for the rest of it if they feel like it. Set in Eastern Europe during the 11th century, it is about a small band of knights belonging to an ancient, little-known order, who are engaged in a plan to stop the Golden Horde from spreading further into Europe. They are aided by a girl named Cnàn, who is a Binder - though what a Binder is, precisely, is never really explained. All that is explained about her is that she's very good at sneaking around and tracking, which are, apparently, core Binder skills. That is just one half of the story: the other half is about the Mongol court, where a young Mongol man with no experience of courtly life must learn how to negotiate the treacherous web of intrigue in order to fulfill his orders. At some point in time these separate storylines will meet (the knights' storyline branches out into two at a certain point in the story), eventually, because the authors appear to be quite sure about the endgame for this thing. What happens before then, though, is certainly open to debate - not least because so many threads are left dangling at the end (if it might even be called an end).

As can be expected, the cast of characters for this novel is rather large, and so far, they are an interesting lot. The knights are intriguing: in particular, their leader, Feronantus, seems to be carrying quite a few chips on his shoulder, and I would like to know what precisely those chips are. Equally interesting is Istvan, the Hungarian knight whose bloodlust for Mongols is fueled by both memory and a rather unsettling personal habit. Raphael is also quite intriguing, not least because he is an Arab (by birth, at least, though not by faith) in the midst of all these obviously Western knights. Damietta also appears to be significant to him, and I would really like to know in what way it is significant to him, because the city was an important staging-point for Crusades, and was constantly fought over by Crusaders and Muslims alike.

And then there is Percival. I don't know what to make of this one, even though he is the one who most closely fits the stereotypical idea of a knight: handsome and gallant, with a strong chivalrous streak. It's implied that there's more to him than just his pretty face, but the only indication of his having had a hard life is his martial prowess. It might be because of his name, because very few characters get named "Percival" without having some sort of quest attached to their characterization, and that's exactly what Percival gets: (view spoiler). At this point I really don't know what to make of him, and while I know this mild dislike I have for him is somewhat unfair, given how incomplete his characterization is at this point, I'm hoping that opinion will change with later books.

As for Cnàn, I think I rather like her, though in truth she rather confuses me at times. I suppose this is because her character is difficult to pin down, given that she's undergoing a major shift in her life and paradigm simply by being around these knights, but I get the feeling sometimes that her characterization is a bit muddled - or could this be a deliberate thing, an echo of the inner turmoil she is experiencing? I cannot say for sure, but, as with Percival, I can only hope that any issues I have with her will be cleared up in later books.

At this point, the characters I like the most are the ones on the Mongol side: the young solider, Gansukh; his tutor Lian; the advisor Chucai, and the Khagan, or Khan of Khans, himself, Ögedei. Western history has portrayed Ögedei - and indeed, Mongols as a whole - as vicious tyrants, but the authors have written them in such a manner that they are actually very human. Ögedei, in particular, was a revelation: it was quite easy to feel sympathetic towards him. But the real fun characters here are Gansukh and Lian, and how they negotiate each other. On one hand, Lian is determined to get away from Mongol control but finds herself attracted to a Mongol. On the other, Gansukh is confused by the way the court operates, since it works almost directly opposite to how his life was out on the steppes, which is made even more difficult by the fact that he's attracted to Lian, but doesn't even know where to begin when it comes to her. As for Chucai, well...it's quite clear that he's pulling strings here - Gansukh and Lian's strings, both - though to what end isn't entirely certain. He seems to want to keep Ögetei functioning and in his position as Khagan, but there's a moment when it's just him, Lian and Gansukh that his intent seems a little less straightforward than that.

On the whole, The Mongoliad: Book One is precisely as its title describes it to be: the first book in likely many, the beginning in what promises to be a long and interesting story. If the reader can tolerate having the rug pulled out from under his or her feet at the end of this book, then it's a good place to start what will, hopefully, be an interesting series. If waiting simply isn't an option, then then the reader can go to the website and pay for premium membership and get all the goodies. For the rest of us, though, who are happy to pay for the book but not necessarily for the membership on the site (not least because the book is actually cheaper than the membership), then there's no choice but to wait, and hope that the next book comes out soon enough - and that the rest of the content is made available eventually.
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Reading Progress

05/20/2012
2.0% "Settling in to this book right now. Seems interesting; will see where this takes me."
05/21/2012
8.0% "I greatly appreciate how the authors have not stinted in depicting the sheer brutality of war and battle."
05/22/2012
63.0% "Am glad to note the authors have taken pains to show how interconnected the countries of East, Southeast, and South Asia really were during the period of the novel. Makes sense that Japanese and Korean people would be present at a Khan's court."
05/22/2012
91.0% "Wait, what? I'm almost at the end? But nothing's really happened yet! I can see that cliffhanger coming from a mile away, and I just know I'm going to hate it - in a good or bad way, though, remains to be seen."
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