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The Mongoliad: Book Three (The Foreworld Saga),
This review is from: The Mongoliad (The Mongoliad Cycle) (Paperback)
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I've been a fan of Neal Stephenson for many years, and particularly enjoyed Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle, two excellent examples of his ability to skillfully weave a gripping fictional storyline in with real historical events and characters.
I was initially sceptical of The Mongoliad though, as with other collaborative projects there's the risk of too many cooks spoiling the broth. This isn't an ordinary collaboration though - it began life as a series of apps intended to create a semi-fictitious universe, unconstrained by the traditional text novel structure. Stemming originally from Stephenson's desire to create genuinely authentic combat scenes, it grew from a collection of short stories into a significant project, spanning nearly eighteen months and involving quite a list of authors, mediaeval combat experts and others.
A fascinating project, but it also raises another concern - will it translate to a traditional text novel? Fortunately, the answer is a definite 'yes'. Fans of Stephenson will immediately recognise his hand - the melding of the scientific with the mystical, the ability to bring history to life in a way that a textbook simply cannot (I've found myself regularly referring to Wikipedia to figure out which bits are real historical events and which bits are fictitious); the meticulous obsession with getting the details correct (the initial motivation for the project, after all) but it's also obvious that it's not solely Stephenson at the helm. That's not to say that the writing style is inconsistent - I never got the sense that the storyline was handed back and forth between the authors - but I think real diehard fans of Stephenson (or any of the other authors) will notice the difference.
The story itself is quite multithreaded - book three of this series picks up quite an advanced storyline, but includes enough background that you wouldn't need to have read the previous two books to quickly pick up the relevant information. As a whole, The Mongoliad obviously benefits from its origins as a much larger project - the characters are already mature, believable people and the environments and events are described in quite beautiful detail.
Overall though, I was a little surprised that there was so little interaction between the parallel threads of the story. Other reviewers have commented that the story felt a little unfinished at the end too - perhaps both symptoms of the fact that we're just viewing facets of a larger world. Without wanting to give away plot details I got the impression that there is more to come (or at least the opportunity for more) - so many of the sub-stories were not resolved (admittedly this will always be difficult when you're building around real people and events - you have to stop somewhere), but it certainly didn't finish on a cliffhanger.
One important point that hasn't really been discussed in reviews of the books is that the story may have been intentionally left partly unresolved. The project was conceived with the expectation that fans would continuously enrich the world The Mongoliad is set in ('Foreworld'), via an online community. A story with all the ends neatly tied up would discourage further writing - considering the project as a whole, that compulsion to further develop the storylines of the (surviving) characters can potentially enrich the universe much further, from a much wider pool of contributors.
As a novel on its own, there are a few criticisms one could direct at The Mongoliad. However, as an example of what's possible in a new and relatively untested creative writing paradigm, it's a really exciting example of just one of the possible outputs (according to the project website The Mongoliad is just the first story set in the Foreworld universe). I arrived a bit late, but I'm really looking forward to what happens next.