1 June 2013

Review: The Mongoliad, Book Three by Neal Stephenson et al

This is the third volume of "The Mongoliad" and at nearly 800 pages, it is almost twice as long as the previous two - not that it seems long: the pages rattle by.

In one sense, the book is easy to review. It is just as good as its predecessors, and if you have read those, you will want to see how things get wrapped up. If you haven't read the other books, this isn't the place to start - I'd recommend you go and look at reviews of Book One and decide if it's for you or not.

But at another level, it may be worth saying a little about the trilogy as a whole, and about how much Volume 3 does, or rather doesn't, provide "closure".

These books make up a true epic, ranging across thousands of miles of medieval Europe and Asia, featuring characters from (in modern terms) Italy, Spain, England, Germany, Poland, Russia, Mongolia, Korea and Japan. They capture a tipping point in history when Western Europe - "Christendom" - seemed poised to be swept away by invaders.

For most of the 1500-odd pages of the cycle, we have followed four threads of the story.

- In Mongolia, the Great Khagan, son of Genghis, passes his time in drunkeness. Around him are the normal intrigues of any Imperial court, heightened by the Mongols being a roving, nomadic people, not accustomed to settled palace life. Honest, bluff warrior Gansukh, untutored in the ways of the Court, arrives on a mission to save Ogedei from himself, making friends and enemies as he does so. Outside the imperial palace, Genghis Khan's mysterious "spirit banner" stands brooding.

- In Hunnern, which I think is in modern day Poland, European knights fight to the death with enslaved warriors from across the empire, seeking, as champions, to prevent any further advance by the invading Horde.

- A small group of knights from the ancient Shield Brethren, despairing of this, has set out across thousands of miles to find and kill the Khagan.

- A conclave meets in Rome to elect a new Pope. The process is watched and manipulated both by Orsini, Senator and ruler of Rome, and by the Holy Roman Emperor, encamped with his troops in the hills outside the city.

In this third book, the war party of Shield Brethren are finally closing on Karakorum, site of the Khagan's palace, even as he leaves to renew his faith in himself by hunting a great bear. The remnants of Europe's chivalry, at Hunern, are trying to fight back against the Mongols (though hampered by schisms and feuds) and a Pope is - finally - elected.

Moving between these threads, the pace never flags. Each is resolved, after a fashion, and the story is never less than entertaining. Yet I did wonder if in the end this saga isn't actually rather less than the sum of its parts. For example, the Roman story never intersects with the others: while eminently readable, I do wonder if it couldn't simply have been cut, to leave three books of more moderate length. And the various hints of mystical artifacts scattered thoughout the books - the Grail, the secret in the tombs at Kiev, the Pope's ring, the spirot banner (and the sprig cut from it) - never come to anything. Nor does the stuff about the ancient origins of the Shield Brethren, the Livonian knights, or the mysterious Binders.

It seems to me clear that the authors have built in hooks for further sequels (whether those ever appear we'll have to see) where presumably this will be explored further, and at the end of this book almost all the main characters are in motion (mostly on horseback) heading purposefully towards the next volume. However I feel a bit cheated by the way that so much material that this story (across all three books) dwells on is simply left unresolved: all those crossbows hanging on the wall in Part 1 that remain unfired... which is why I have only given this concluding volume three stars. In large part, that reflects my slight disappointment with the outcome of the trilogy as a whole, rather than criticism of this book in particular.

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