The Ninjabot

Review of The Mongoliad: Book One, by Neal Stephenson et al

Posted on August 9, 2012 at 5:00 am by Amanda Andonian

If you own a Kindle and also have Amazon Prime, then you can borrow this book for free through Amazon’s Kindle Owners Lending Library. I don’t know how long it’ll be available like this, though, so if you still want to read the book after my review, then get your Kindle and borrow it!

If you’re a fan of Neal Stephenson (of Snow Crash fame), then you might have heard of his latest project, The Mongoliad. I’ve actually been aware of this collaborative work between Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey, Cooper Moo, and E.D. deBirmingham since 2010 when it was only an online, serialized novel at Mongoliad.com.

I never actually read anything on the site, though, so when they decided to publish it, I finally got around to reading this strange story that begins in the 13th century as the Mongols invade Europe, but somehow brings us to the 19th century and the tale of an exotic languages expert who’s asked to help translate a set of arcane documents.

Confused yet?

In case you couldn’t tell already, a lot of you are probably not going to like this book. Just glancing at reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, it seems like opinions are pretty evenly split. There are those who read the book because Neal Stephenson’s name is on the cover, but they prefer his sci-fi or cyberpunk works; and then there are those who just like Neal Stephenson in general, but can’t take the slow pace of “The Mongoliad.”

And yes, the pace is incredibly slow.

However, I refused to give up on this novel. I can see why Stephenson was drawn to this project, given his previous works of alternate historical fiction. As someone who actually enjoyed the The Baroque Cycle, I managed to keep myself on track with The Mongoliad, though it did take a Herculean effort. Whether it was because I actually liked this book, or just from sheer stubbornness, I’m still trying to determine.

When I sat down to write this review of The Mongoliad, I wasn’t sure exactly how to nail down what it is that I kind of like about this. Let’s forget about the overarching concept behind the book, which is that it’s an experiment in open source authoring. First of all, though the story is plodding, the characters are diverse and fleshed out very well. They may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but in my mind, they’re all real people with real foibles and flaws, which I always appreciate in my fictional characters.

The writing itself is pretty good, even if the pacing is slow. Despite the fact that it has half a dozen authors, I didn’t feel like the narrative was disjointed. On the other hand, some of the character relationships do go in very predictable directions; the “romances” between the few female characters and their male counterparts feel a little forced, as though the authors thought, “There’s a man and a woman in this scene. They need to be attracted to each other!”

Not gonna lie, I did tend to zone out during a lot of the set-up; but once I started to get a sense of what this world is and the conflicts that the characters were facing, I started to get a sense that this is truly an epic work of fiction. I’m not even going to bother trying to go into detail because the sheer number of characters, relationships, and plot points are so many that I would probably end up just rewriting the whole book as I tried to explain it to you.

So, should you read The Mongoliad? If you enjoy alternate history and historical fiction, then yes, you will probably enjoy this book. However, if you only want to pick it up because Neal Stephenson’s name is on the cover, I would recommend that you hold off. You’ll probably just be disappointed that it’s not like Snow Crash or The Diamond Age.

Has anyone else had the wherewithal to tackle this first published installment of The Mongoliad project? What did you think? Let us know in the comments!

    • Snackbar

      Nice review Amanda. I am about to start Snow Crash this weekend. I am a huge fan of Ready Player One, and Snow was a big influence on Ernie Cline.

      • Nice! I remember reading Snow Crash about three years ago, and it totally blew my mind. Then I read it again about six months ago, and I was kind of surprised at how naive I'd been, hahaha. The satire went completely over my head the first time 😛

        Spoiler alert: there's satire.

    • Snackbar

      Have you read Ready Player One? It's so good. Your boyfriend Wil Weaton narrates the audio book. He had a small cameo in the book. One of the best things shout the book is that after reading the 5 page prologue you know if this is the book for you. It sets Thr tone right away. If you love games, movies, books, or the 80s you will love it.

      • I've heard glowing things about it, but I've also heard that it's a little *too* pop-culture-y/self-referencial. I'm not a huge fan of audio books, though; so despite the fact that Mr. Wheaton reads it, I'll probably stick with the text!

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