The Mongoliad Book Three (And the Mongoliad Trilogy): A Review

51sIKH0vrbL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Ok, so I may have come down a bit hard on the ol’ Mongoliad boys with the last review. The third volume basically made-up for some of the screw-ups in the second and re-captured some of the majesty that made the first volume so enjoyable.

First a quick re-cap – Seven uber-nerds (I’m assuming), with varying degrees of commercial writing renown, set embark on a journey to write an epic historical fiction trilogy about the conflict between Christian Europe and the Mongol horde. That might be a captivating book on its own, but its actually what Greg Bear, Neal Stephenson, Mark Teppo, Nicole Galland, Erik Bear, Joseph Massey, and Cooper Moo set out to do. And they succeeded.

Book three again had several different plot lines featuring divergent characters, but in this volume at least two of the groups wound up reuniting (they started off together, but lets ignore that for now). We got the story from the Mongol point of view, plenty of grim solider dialogue from multiple crews of Christian military orders, and some political intrigue in the form of a sede vacante in Rome. Are they all related? Tangentially yes. How? I don’t know, but they are. Good lord people, seven of them wrote it. Lets cut some slack where slack is due.

I’ll try not to bore you with too much plot re-hash, since you should read the damn things yourselves. The vast majority of the plot lines were wrapped up in typical medieval fiction style (“She rode off down the road, not knowing what lie ahead.” or “The party was reunited and there was much rejoicing.” or more definitely, “They died.”) but the endings felt natural. A few story lines from the preceding two volumes were cast aside and forgotten, but you didn’t miss them too much.

I had a bone to pick with the Rome setting and the papal intrigue in the last volume, and while still definitely the weakest setting, some of the issues I had were resolved. It felt like the authors embraced some of the absurdity in the base idea, and moments within the narrative were pure comedy. My favorite line (paraphrasing) “They had just elected a madman to be the next pope, and now they had to decide what to do about it.” has got to be a candidate for funniest lines of prose anywhere. Or maybe it’s funny because I was raised Catholic.

As a whole, this trilogy was entertaining to read, if a it sluggish in the second volume. I’d recommend it to any fan of historical fiction with the slightest bit of fantasy (no real magic, just some inexplicable happenings here and there) will enjoy this one. The combat and action sequences are smooth and fluid, the settings are vibrant, and the martial characters reveal a softer side after (or before) all the blood and killing that bridges the gap between the bloody battles.

The trilogy overall gets 4 out of 5 spirit poles. And that’s not a euphemism. Or referencing priest from Poland.

The Mongoliad itself is much bigger than the three books I’ve reviewed here. It’s actually set in the “Foreworld” setting, an alternate-historical, fan-driven universe that mirrors our own but apparently brings some cultures into conflict that may never have intersected in real life. The Mongoliad Cycle, as its referred, spawned from one of the author’s (Neal Stephenson) dissatisfaction with the authenticity of his sword-fighting scenes. So he gathered up some medieval fighting geeks, studied some sword-play, and then they all contributed to writing some stories. Maybe the coolest origin story for a book ever.

The project was originally serialized on a fan-contribution website, and the Subutai Corporation (Creators of Foreworld) even recognize some fan fiction as “side-quests” for their larger publishing endeavors. I wanted to look at the three Mongoliad books as strictly prose, but the origins and motivations behind the story are almost as interesting as the prose.

If you want to learn more, check out the Wikipedia page, since I am lazy.

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The Mongoliad Book Two: A Review (And a brief discussion of The Empire Strikes Back)

13665175There was a little bit of space between reading volume one and two in this rather interesting series written by 7 authors: Greg Bear (Arguably the most famous), Neal Stephenson, Mark Teppo, Nicole Galland, Erik Bear, Joseph Massey, Cooper Moo).

I found the disjointed yet inter-weaving storylines from the first volume to be compelling and interesting. It’s very clear in volume two the same approach continued: assign a writer (or two) to a certain setting or character group and let them write that part. I applaud the unique approach, as I’ve always been curious about author collaborations and how well they actually work. The first volume ( and you can read that review here) seemed to have its proverbial shit together, as the characters were somewhat disjointed but still had an overarching theme in common (Mongols vs. Christendom, or really everyone else on the Asian-European landmass).

In book two, we get a few new characters and a new setting: Rome. A crazy priest, his somewhat savage boy companion (Get your minds out of the gutter) another binder-child girl (Binders are essentially tribal messengers…you’ll have to read it or be a history professor to understand), and a plethora of imprisoned cardinals struggling to elect a new pope.

Some of the novelty of the divergent storylines wore off in volume two. Its a comparatively short work when put next to volumes one and three, and the new papal/Roman environment felt underdeveloped. The old favorites are back (at least the ones that didn’t die), and the Shield-Brethren Knights are still trying to both distract and take down the entire Mongol dynasty with just a handful of well-armored Christians.

And the strength of book two, much like one, still lies in the martial description. Its very clear these folks did their homework, both historically and aesthetically, and the combat scenes feel alive and fluid. A fair portion of this book is dedicated to the Mongol version of gladiator combat, as well as militaristic skirmishes between Mongols and Knights. Some of the smoothest and most understandable descriptions I’ve seen since reading Dan Abnett are in these two books, and the historical accuracy is a cherry on top of that bloody cake.

The pleasant surprise of the first volume was the decidedly more intriguing story of the internal political struggle in Mongol capital, with a side of longing romanticism. Gansukh the steppe warrior struggles to save the Khagan (the BIG Khan) from his dependence on alcohol, and also kind of has a thing for a Chinese slave/etiquette teacher named Lian. The in-depth look at court politics, subterfuge, and social conflict provided an interesting counterpoint to the heavy-handed action movie that was the knights’ portion of the storyline. The interweaving continues in book two, with Lian and Gansukh getting bolder (and naughtier) with their affair.

The new cast of characters in Rome is where volume two struggles. The whole thing, setting, plot evolution, etc. just happens too fast, and it isn’t clear how it ties into the narrative from book one. Every time a chapter started for the Rome setting, I groaned (figuratively). I honestly believe keeping this entire storyline out of the book would’ve been an improvement. Maybe they’ll change my mind in book three (which is currently underway…no change yet).

The middle book, to me, can sometimes make or break a series. When a reader (or viewer) starts to experience a work of literature or media that they know has three parts, the expectation is simple: Volume one I meet the characters, and Volume three is the exciting conclusion. So…where do we get the meat of the story? In volume two. Its why Empire is so clearly the best Star Wars in the trilogy (and if you disagree, hold up two fingers. Great. Now shove them in your eye sockets.) Unfortunately for the Mongoliad, volume two is quite weak. What started off with promise out of the gate is now limping toward the finish line. At the end of the day I am reading the third volume, so it couldn’t have been that bad.

I’d say Mongoliad Book Two gets a 4 out of 7 superfluous authors, since the book has seven. In all honesty the attempt to write a series with a septuple-headed writer is commendable on its own. I struggle with having just one person arguing amongst himself, I couldn’t imagine seven. Although I may have at least that many personalities in my head when I’m writing.

Ahem.

Signing Off.

The Stand – A Review

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I’ve never been a big Stephen King fan. There I said it. Easily one of the most successful writer’s of all time, I just couldn’t get into the stuff he wrote. I like monsters. I like psychological thrillers. I like horror. But somehow, I never really liked Stephen King. I tried. I read Thinner, Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, Cujo, and none of it really grabbed me. I started The Dark Tower and got into it a bit, but still managed to put it down and not pick it back up again.

So why subject myself to 1200 pages of him? I couldn’t tell you. Reading The Stand has always felt like a rite of passage as a reader. Like you weren’t in the “It” crowd (pun intended) until you’d plodded through the density that is The Stand. And I did it. Lord knows it wasn’t the easiest thing to hack through, but I found I enjoyed it more than any King book I’d tried. And now, for my (slightly) informed opinion:

This book,as you can probably tell, is a bit tough to get through. It’s long, slow in places, and cuts some corners inexplicably while laboring intensely in other places where it felt unnatural. That being said, the length of the book is ambitious, and the middle section is exciting and interesting enough to almost stand on its own. Once Captain Trips starts mowing folks down, the prose really comes into its own. Things get exciting, the post-apocalyptic piece starts kicking in, and the pages start turning.

The characters are hit and miss for me. Stu Redman definitely felt like a well-developed good ol’ boy from East Texas. Frannie’s giggle fits and semi-demurity painted her as a perfect New England college ingenue with a kind heart and sharp wit. Larry Underwood was a bit bizarre, the emerging pop icon who struggles to believe that he’s not a complete asshole, but it felt real enough. And Nick Andros was believable and strong, and even though he was mute the disability never over-shadowed the character. So all the folks on the “good” side were likable and relatable for the most part.

The folks on the “bad” side were somewhat less impressive. Lloyd being the best example, he enters the story as a drug-addled homicidal maniac. Somehow magic makes him “better” and he becomes a consigliere to a demon (-ish thing). Same thing with Harold and Nadine. They seemed to be either inexplicably bad or inexplicably good, and relied on external influences to determine their actions. Harold flirted with relatability, as did Nadine, until they were ripped from the ranks of the “good” people by supernatural forces.

Some spoilers below.

That may define my biggest issue with the entirety of the book. I could not buy the supernatural elements, as it felt like the author couldn’t decide what role the “magic” elements should play. The intrigue of a drifter archetype and a centenarian African-American ultra-grandma becoming holy (and unholy) lodestones for the surviving population had me hooked for a few hundred pages, but the execution was lacking. It felt like King couldn’t decide if he wanted supernatural forces to be incredibly prevalent and tangible, or unseen and more subtle. The flu came about through strictly scientific means, with no innuendo that it may have been a part of unnatural machinations.

Randall Flag is a bit of a mystery. He runs the gamut of being a spooky, haunting but grounded character to some kind of possessed or straight-up demonic entity. I read the whole thing and I’m still not sure. I’m not convinced King knows either. I bought the seeing through or possessing (kind of) animals, or the Third Eye granting him some form of remote viewing ability. All these things aren’t active abilities that physically change the world or the environment. It’s subtle magic that grants information and that’s it. Perfect. Mother Abigail had a less-direct form of Special Sight, and that worked too. I’m with you, Steve.

And then, at the climax, which you’ve actually built up to masterfully and had me on the edge of my seat, suddenly he can cast Chain Lightning. And you lost me. I’m probably complaining more than I should because I firmly believe well-crafted villains, and to a lesser extent anti-heroes and anti-villains, are the most interesting characters in a book, and there just aren’t any in The Stand. Harold is too whiny, and lets himself be controlled by outside forces. Same with Nadine and Lloyd. Randall is all over the place, part weird vagabond and part demonic antagonist, and none of it is very compelling.

I’m about done ranting and raving about the bad parts. The beginning dragged a bit for me, and the ending was…something. But the middle portion (which adds up to about an 800-page book on its own) is incredibly strong. Once the handful of main protagonists start working their way toward Boulder, and then when they get there, the story gets good. It’s people living together, interacting, and trying to re-form a society in a very real and authentic way. The wonky, back-and-forth supernatural forces take a bit of a back seat to the “good” characters just being human. And that’s where the strength of this novel lies. I love elements of the divine,mythical, or metaphysical in stuff I read. In fact, I often prefer it. But here, it just wasn’t executed well.

Overall, I’d give The Stand 3.5 long-ass walks out of 5. Because lord there was a ton of walking. Not quite Lord of the Rings but damn close.

And now, I’m done. Signing Off.