Saturday, February 26, 2011

Review: Genghis: The Trilogy by Conn Iggulden

I’m about to begin reading Conn Iggulden's latest saga about the descendants of Genghis Khan and realized that, although I read the first three books in the series fictionalizing the life of legendary conqueror Genghis Khan, I hadn’t written a review about them yet. So, I will strive to cover the opening trilogy which, hopefully, will serve as a refresher on the series before I write a review for the latest book.

I have found Iggulden's stories so dynamic with characters so psychologically intricate that they must surely embody the cultural ideal of the nomadic warriors I have read about in my studies.

Genghis: Birth of an Empire: A NovelThe first book of the series, "Birth of an Empire", intimately explores not only the daily life of the hardy people of the Asian steppes, but the warrior ethos and competitive drive that shaped the future conqueror and his kinsmen.  We first meet Timujin as a nine-year-old boy racing wildly across the steppes, fiercely challenging his older half-brother for leadership of the small cadre of his siblings who gallop behind them.  It’s as if this scene echoes the pattern we will see repeated throughout his life as he challenges other men, for leadership of, first, the Mongol families, then, later, dominion over the cities and people of the Jin and the desert dwellers of the Middle East.

We meet Timujin's father, Yesugei - not a khan, but a respected war band leader of a tribe considered one of the noble houses of the steppe.  With his cold face and wolf's head sword, Yesugei is the epitome of a Mongol warrior.  He emanates power and it is clear he has inspired his sons to follow his example - at least all but little Timugei, who seems misplaced on a horse and headed for a totally different destiny.

But Yesugei's guidance is cut short when he is poisoned by a band of Tartars and another warrior takes over leadership of the clan, wrenching away Timujin's birthright.  Timujin's mother and siblings are left abandoned on the plain without even the shelter of their family ger, a felt-covered refuge from the biting winds, for comfort.

He and his brothers must use all of the skills their father taught them just to survive the next few years and keep their mother and infant sister fed.  The boys spend their days desperately trying to snare marmots or snag fish in the mountain streams, each day fearfully avoiding other tribesman who might kill them on sight to protect their precious flocks.  They also nervously eye a darkening sky, the first signs of the rapidly approaching winter.  The little family grows thin and weak with only occasional mouthfuls of food - all except Timujin's half-brother Bechter.  Timujin suspects Bechter is not sharing all of his catches and follows him to confirm his suspicions.  When he sees Bechter catch a fish then disappear and return without it, Timujin knows what he must do.  The family will not survive intact if one member is consuming resources but not contributing to the well-being of the whole.

The Secret History of the Mongols tells us that Timujin expresses his frustration to his mother who rebukes him saying:
"Apart from our shadows we have no friends!  Apart from our horse tails we have no whips!"
But Timujin will not let the transgression pass and recruits his brother Khasar to help him stalk and kill their older half-brother.  Iggulden diverges from history a little replacing Khasar with Kachiun, the more thoughtful brother.  Iggulden portrays Kachiun throughout the trilogy as more clever and strategically minded than Khasar, a bold but at times reckless warrior, so I think he made this switch to keep his portrayals consistent.

Timujin takes no pleasure in the death and must suffer the wrath of his mother for the hard decision he had to make.  The Secret History relates to us Hoelun's rage:
"You destroyers!" she yells, "Like a wild dog eating its own afterbirth, you have destroyed!"
Whether Hoelun would have been that angry over the death of a son of one of Yesugei's minor wives may be questionable but it demonstrates the strong bond all members of a clan group have for each other, regardless of direct blood ties.  Timujin never lost respect for his mother and this incident is often viewed as a valuable lesson that instilled the need to forego vengeance and cultivate cooperation and loyalty.  Timujin's dedication to his family is a quality we see surface again and again throughout his life as each novel unfolds.

Genghis Khan's Mongols spread Chinese technologyImage via Wikipedia
Genghis Khan
I think Iggulden does an excellent job of crafting Timudjin's character, a unique blend of innate leadership coupled with a boldness and vision, rare in a man so young but with an edge of ruthlessness.  You easily find yourself respecting the man if not outright admiring him although in this novel, he is still young and not yet hardened by years of war and the inevitable betrayals that plague ambitious men.

Bechter's death is the first of many that will follow as Timujin is propelled towards his destiny.  The family survives the deadly winter and actually begins to slowly rebuild their lives by stealing livestock that wander past their makeshift home.  But Timujin burns to revenge his father and reclaim his birthright at the head of his ancestral tribe.  His father achieved prominence through strategic alliances and this lesson was not wasted on Timujin.  He begins to gather a group of followers.  He also returns to the Olkhun'ut to retrieve his promised bride.  Iggulden's version of this event in Timujin's life is certainly exciting.  But, the Secret History does not record the event with any bloodshed.

Iggulden's tale also contains a rather startling omission, Timujin's "blood brother" Jamukha.  Jamuka had been a friend since childhood and had risen to become the khan of the Jadarans.  When Timujiin's wife is stolen by the Merkits (not the Tartars as portrayed in the novel), it is Jamukha and Togrul, a blood brother of Timujin's father, who help Timujin retrieve her.  Although the Merkits are scattered by the attack, they are not hunted down to the last man.  The eerie scene of human sacrifice Iggulden used for a climax to the chase did not occur either although such rituals were, apparently, occasionally practiced by nomadic peoples in the region according to Iggulden's author's notes.

The successful mission against the Merkits (Tartars in the novel) seems to reinforce the widespread rumors that Timujin is the promised one who will unite the Mongol people.

"...rumour strengthens into hope and hope into prophecy.  Later arrivals report signs and omens.  One man says he has heard an ox bellowing, 'Heaven and Earth agree, let Temujin be the nation's master!' - Genghis Khan, Life, Death and Resurection by John Man.

But fifteen years and many more intertribal conflicts are fought before Genghis claims title to all the nations.

Genghis: Lords of the Bow: A Novel
As we begin “Lords of the Bow”, book two in the trilogy, we find the proud warrior has been a bit corrupted by absolute power.  He now clearly sets himself apart from others in the nation.  His ger is now so big it can no longer be quickly disassembled like an average Mongol structure and instead, must trundle along fully assembled on a cart.

Genghis completes his unification of the Mongol tribes and now sets his sights on conquest of the Jin, beginning in the west with Xi Xia.  The leadership of Xi Xia had a rocky past with the ruling Jin, sometimes supporting the ruling Jin emperor and at other times, proclaiming their own.  By the time Genghis and his Mongol hoard arrive on the scene, Xi Xia is ruled by Xiangzong (Li An-chuan), a self-proclaimed emperor who had led a brutal coup d'état against the previous emperor.  Xiangzong had no love for the dynasty ruling the Jin at that time even though Xi Xia was considered a vassal state.  Not wishing to risk his own power base, Xiangzong negotiates a settlement with Genghis and gives his daughter to Genghis as a wife to seal the bargain.
Genghis Khan empire, 13th centuryImage via Wikipedia
Genghis Khan's conquests

Although Genghis finds her beautiful and cultured, the marriage disrupts his domestic life.  We also see that Genghis is struggling with doubt about the paternity of his firstborn as well and sadly, cannot bring himself to praise or show affection to young Jochi. To make matters worse, Genghis’ second son torments his older brother mercilessly and does everything he can to undermine his brother in the eyes of the nation.

Genghis’ personal relationships are also complicated by a scheming shaman Kokchu.  Kokchu, in an effort to gain control over Genghis, introduces Genghis’ brother Timugai to opium and soon has the young man hopelessly addicted.

The highlight of this novel is a thrilling description of Genghis’ battle with the Jin at the pass known as Badger’s Mouth.  There, Genghis’ Mongols met between 400,000 and 500,000 Jin warriors arranged in a defensive position that funneled the Mongols into the narrow opening of the pass to neutralize the advantage of the Mongol’s mounted cavalry.  History tells us that Genghis secretly split his forces sending men around the opening of the pass and scaling the peaks surrounding the Jin fortifications. Thus when the Mongols finally attacked, they assaulted the unsuspecting Jin from two sides.  In the novel, Iggulden has the advance troops commanded by Kachiun and Khassar who each demonstrate their respective strengths of cunning and warrior prowess.

Iggulden is masterful at character development and by now I felt as proud of Kachiun and Khassar as if they were my own brothers.

Genghis: Bones of the Hills

In book three, “Bones of the Hills”, Genghis has turned his hungry eyes westward toward the heart of central Asia and the lands ruled by Shah Mohammed of Khorezm.  The vast Empire of Khorezm extended all the way from the Aral Sea down to the Gulf and from Iraq to India.   But the Shah was not content with his holdings and coveted the empire of the Jin.  However Genghis beat him to the prize.  Genghis sends a delegation to the Shah as a gesture towards establishing peaceful relations but the Shah’s governor of Utrar, greedy for the valuable goods in the Mongol caravan, executes them.  When Genghis hears of the slaughter of his enoys, he gathers over 150,000 of his people and begins marching toward Utrar.

Genghis cuts a cruel swath through what is now modern day Uzbekistan, the battles thrillingly rendered by Iggulden.  But enemies plague Genghis within as well as outside his realm.

Genghis Khan statue before his Mausoleum in Or...Image via Wikipedia
Iggulden adds a plot twist that includes the scheming shaman Kokchu’s rape and murder of  Genghis’ sister during a raid on the camp of the women and children by forces led by Jallalhadin, the son of the Shah.

Thinking he has escaped detection, Kokchu continues his role as advisor to the Khan.  But he was seen coming out of the sister’s tent during the melee and his crimes are finally pieced together.  The creepy shaman is finally put to death by Genghis himself who, with his mother and brothers, takes the shaman for a ride into the wilderness.  The party stops and all dismount.  Genghis reveals his knowledge of the man’s heinous crime and before the shaman can plead for his life, Genghis lifts the man off his feet and snaps his spine, leaving him paralyzed and contemplating a slow death by ravenous wolves as Genghis and his family ride away.

Although this incident was much embellished by Iggulden, the Secret History relates that one of Genghis’ shamans named Teb-Tengri attempted to build a power base of followers in an apparent challenge for tribal leadership and Genghis laid a trap for him in which the shaman was killed by having his spine broken. (Source: Animal and shaman: ancient religions of Central Asia By Julian Baldick) 

By the end of the Khorezm conquest, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands has wearied even Genghis’ faithful brother Kachiun who yearns for peace as he sees age overtaking the warrior family.  Genghis seems drained of what mercy he may have once possessed.  When Genghis hears that his second wife’s father back in Xi Xia has refused to send the annual tribute, he plans to reinvade Xi Xia and raze it to the ground.

Meanwhile, his oldest son Jochi, tired of his father’s refusal to acknowledge his achievements and leadership potential, deserts with his own loyal forces back to the grasslands of the north.  In a fury Genghis orders his friend and famous general Subutai to track Jochi down and “deal” with him. 

In the Mongol’s Secret History, Jochi does die during his father’s lifetime but no definitive description of his death is given. 

Rashid al-Din reports that the great Khan sent for his sons in the spring of 1223, and while his brothers heeded the order, Jochi remained in Khorasan. Juzjani suggests that the disagreement arose from a quarrel between Jochi and his brothers in the siege of Urgench. Jochi had attempted to protect Urgench from destruction, as it belonged to territory allocated to him as a fief. He concludes his story with the clearly apocryphal statement by Jochi: "Genghis Khan is mad to have massacred so many people and laid waste so many lands. I would be doing a service if I killed my father when he is hunting, made an alliance with Sultan Muhammad, brought this land to life and gave assistance and support to the Muslims." Juzjani claims that it was in response to hearing of these plans that Genghis Khan ordered his son secretly poisoned; however, as Sultan Muhammad was already dead in 1223, the accuracy of this story is questionable. – Wikipedia

Although Subutai faithfully follows the order of his Khan, the act is a death blow to their friendship.  However, history tells us that Subutai continued to serve the Khan until Genghis dies, then serves Ogedi until Ogedi’s death as well.

When death finally comes for Genghis Khan at the end of the novel, it is at the point of a dagger wielded by a woman.  Although the actual facts surrounding the great Khan’s death are shrouded in mystery, his death at the hands of a woman is a persistent legend that has been handed down through oral tradition among the Mongol people so Iggulden capitalizes on it.

 Conn Iggulden truly has a gift for bringing the lives of famous people from the past to life.  I’m anxious to begin reading his latest installment in the Mongol saga, Khan: Empire of Silver: A Novel of the Khan Empire.  Ogedi wrests control of his father’s empire from the clutches of his two remaining brothers and his father's four scheming grandsons while Subutai scorches a path through Europe up to the gates of Vienna!

If you find this period of history as fascinating as I did, you may also enjoy the film "Mongol".  There is also a marvelous Chinese miniseries "Genghis Khan".  I was able to get it through Netflix.

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Genghis: Birth of an Empire: A Novel   Genghis: Lords of the Bow: A Novel  Genghis: Bones of the Hills  Khan: Empire of Silver: A Novel of the Khan Empire  
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