Thursday, January 21, 2016

Review: The Mongoliad: Book Three

The Mongoliad: Book Three The Mongoliad: Book Three by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book, and it's predecessors, particularly because of some of the characters. I want to write about some of the things that didn't work for me, and why. I don't really consider them to be spoilers, because it's mostly about things that never happen, appear to me mostly irrelevant to the plot, or things that are spelled out in the book itself very early on. Nonetheless, if you don't like to know _anything_ about a book before reading it, you should probably stop here.

So some things that didn't work. As I've mentioned in earlier reviews in the series, there are too many characters, which makes it hard to engage with some of them. But at least they mostly stay together in one of four main clumps of story, so it's easy enough to keep track of them. The problem is, at least one of these storylines - the papal elections in Rome, introduced in book 2 - never converges on the other three, nor does it appear to be connected to them in any way. It has some great characters in it, but none of the characters appear to even be aware of the existence of anything in the other 3/4 of the book, nor vice-versa. You could chop this entire plot out and it would be impossible to tell that anything had been removed from what was left. What's more, this separate little plot doesn't even come to anything like a conclusion. We never find out who the new pope is. Fieschi never pays for his crimes in any meaningful way, nor does he achieve anything with his plotting. It doesn't even progress in any particularly logical fashion; the cardinals come up with a cunning plan for why Rodrigo is now irrelevant, and then Fieschi goes to a huge amount of effort to try to recover him anyways? Why? You just declared him irrelevant, remember?

There are some slightly jarring holes in the other three plots too. One group of our heroes sleeps in the saddle, gets route advice from a master trader, takes a dangerous shortcut - we basically get their drive for speed hammered into us all across 3 books - and then arrives at their goal at least a couple of weeks after one of our other heroes, who left after them, and travelled in a cage on the back of a rickety old cart. One group of our heroes plans for weeks, smuggling spies into an enemy camp to recruit allies to help with their master plan... which is apparently to throw a spear at the badguy? You needed a plan for that? And allies? It all goes pear-shaped, and the allies end up being useful, but the original plan was apparently to chuck a sharp stick.

Another thing that didn't really work in this book was the two khans. We have two "villains" in these stories, named Onghwe and Ogedei. Our heroes are trying to assassinate them both, so it's important that we be able to keep them separate in our minds or the two plots will get muddled. The names are historical, so there's not much you can do about them, but you can at least go to some effort to set them apart as different personalities, to make them easier to distinguish. Instead, we get a detailed portrait of one... and the other is essentially not depicted in any of the three books, except as a shadow behind a curtain, until the final climax of book 3. Then he suddenly appears as a mighty warrior, but we know almost nothing about him, so he's just a boss fight that we don't really care about.

One last aspect of these books failed (for me, at least) not because it was badly-done, but because it was a hard task to begin with: the balance between the two sides in the conflict. What the authors do really well is to characterise both mongols and christian knights in a way that you can empathize with, even where you might not particularly _like_ the character in question. And this works, right up until you pit the two sides against each other in direct conflict. How am I, the reader, supposed to feel when someone who I like and resepect finally meets someone else who I like and respect, and cuts their head off? Maybe that's what they were going for: the jarring realisation that good people die. But it doesn't make for great storytelling.

Overall, I found the books enjoyable but flawed.

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