Sunday, November 04, 2012

Battle of the Books, Summer 2012, Second Round :: The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen vs. The Mongoliad: Book One by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear & five others

For our final second round match, The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen squares off against The Mongoliad: Book One by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, E.D. deBirmingham, Erik Bear, Joseph Bassey and Cooper Moo. The book I most want to continue reading after 50 pages will be the last entrant in the Final Four of this bracket.

The Land of Decoration: Henry Holt and Company hardcover, 306 pages, April 2012. Grace McCleen is a UK author and singer-songwriter. The Land of Decoration is her first novel.

In the first 25 pages, we were introduced to Judith McPherson a 10-year old British Jehovah’s Witness being raised by her father. In her room, Judith was constructing a model world out of collected scraps which she called The Land of Decoration. At school, a boy threatened to push Judith's head down the toilet. Judith worried herself sick over the threat. At the Meeting Hall, an impressive visiting speaker preached how faith can move mountains.

Judith remembers that school closed once because of snow. She thinks hard about snow. Judith creates model snow over her Land of Decoration using things such as white cotton, flour and shaving foam. A voice urges her on. The next morning it snows. School is cancelled and she doesn’t have to face the bully. Judith thinks the snow was a miracle produced because she had faith. Her father thinks she’s imagining things. Judith decides to test whether the snow was a coincidence. She models snow over her Land of Decoration for a second time. After a long day’s wait, it snows again.

The Mongoliad: Book One: 47 North, trade paperback, 448 pages. The Mongoliad was originally released in a serialized format online. Two more books are forthcoming in the series. Of the gang of seven authors, Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear are well known science fiction writers, and Mark Teppo is the author of an urban fantasy series.

The year is 1241, after the Mongols defeated the Europeans at the Battle of Legnica. Cnán, a woman messenger, spies the knights of the Shield-Brethren near a ruined monastery and she is spotted by their sentries. She informs the men, a group of about a dozen men from different lands, that she was sent by Illarion, an injured friend of theirs.

The physician Rafael, hunter Finn, and young fighter Haakon accompany Cnán on a several days long trip to rescue Illarion. A Mongol has cut off Illarion’s right ear, thinking Illarion was dead. On the group’s return, they end up passing through the bloody ruins and refugees of Legnica. Illarion spooks a Mongol scouting party into thinking they are ghosts.

Meanwhile, in the capital of the Mongol Empire, Ögedei Khan, son of Genghis Khan, is tired of dealing with bureaucrats. He complains to his wives that all he does is eat and talk. His brother is rightfully worried about Ögedei’s drinking. Ögedei has a flashback to the decades earlier battle of Khalakhaljid Sands, where he was seriously wounded.

The Battle: Again, we have two very different books. The Land of Decoration features a religious girl who believes she can make miracles happen. The Mongoliad: Book One is set during the 13th Century invasion of Europe by the Mongols.

The Land of Decoration is certainly readable. Judith is an introverted girl with an interestingly skewed point of view.
     I know about faith. The world in my room is made out of it. Out of faith I stitched the clouds. Out of faith I cut the moon and the stars. With faith I glued everything together and set it humming. This is because faith is like imagination. It sees something where there is nothing, it takes a leap, and suddenly you’re flying.
If this was a genre fantasy book, I’d think Judith’s "miracle" snow was some kind of sympathetic magic. But since The Land of Decoration is mainstream fiction, and an Book of the Week, I expect a more mundane explanation is forthcoming.

The Mongoliad: Book One is a gritty, medieval epic.
     With a sweep of his arm, Illarion drew back the cloak that had swathed him for much of the last two days and hurled it aside, where it spun and flew for an uncanny number of yards, like a bat, then fell-–to precisely drape the picked skeleton and conical helm of a Polish knight.
     A knight who had almost made it to the forest before taking three arrows in the back.
     All heads turned, mesmerized by this.
     Bones rattled. The round hump of the skull shifted under the cloak, as if finding new life.
     Illarion reined his horse just to the left of the Mongol chief and canted his head with a careless jerk, exposing the swollen earless right side of his face....
The Mongoliad: Book One deals with violent times and contains unsettling scenes, such the group seeing the remains of the children of Legnica, who were killed to prevent them being captured by the Mongols.

I can't recall reading a book with this historical setting. I was intrigued enough to reference Wikipedia. So far, The Mongoliad: Book One appears to follow history.

This decision wasn’t easy for me. The Land of Decoration is good, the story is developing, and it certainly isn’t violent. On the other hand, The Mongoliad: Book One is brutal, it features a large cast of characters, and I want to find out more. Ultimately, it came down to this: The Land of Decoration is too close to the real world for my personal tastes. I (Amy) prefer books that take me further from reality.

THE WINNER: THE MONGOLIAD: BOOK ONE by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and five others

The Mongoliad: Book One advances to meet Silver by Rhiannon Held in the semifinals.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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