Monday, April 25, 2011

Review: Khan: Empire of Silver by Conn Iggulden

Khan: Empire of Silver: A Novel of the Khan EmpireIt's been two years since Genghis Khan died and his heir, Ogedei, has been consumed with the construction of his new capital city, Qaraqorum (also spelled Karakorum).  His older brother Chaghadai, who considers the Khanate his birthright despite his father's decree, has not been idle either. He meets in secret with the officers of his tumens (Mongol military units of 10,000 men)  and plots to seize the throne before the people of the nations gather to swear their allegiance to the new Khan.

Genghis' brothers, Kachiun and Khassar, have sworn to protect their brother's choice of successor. Their tumens along with those of Subutai are loyal but will they be enough to avert the slaughter of Ogedei and his family?

We also learn that  civil war is not the only catastrophe looming over the hard won Mongol Empire. We discover the young Khan suffers from episodes of severe chest pains and fears his body will betray him before his brother. Then who would lead the nation since Ogedei's son Guyuk is still but a boy?

Conn Iggulden brings the descendants of Genghis Khan vibrantly to life in his latest novel "Khan: Empire of Silver" and I was immediately invested in the outcome of the dynastic struggles between Ogedei and his rivals for the Mongol throne even though most of the thrilling action in the first few chapters of the novel are a tribute to Iggulden's imagination and not specifically documented in historical sources.

The enthronement of Ogedei from a manuscript of  Rashid al-Din.
"Although Genghis had already decided upon Ogedei as his successor, it was two years before he actually assumed the title of Great Khan.  Some suggest it was because Ogedei himself was reluctant, feeling that Tolui might perhaps have been better suited, while other sources suggest it was Tolui who was unhappy about being passed over.  At any rate, a quriltai [kurultai]  was called in 1229 at which the issue was finally settled." -  Storm from the East: from Ghengis Khan to Khubilai Khan by Robert Marshall, University of California Press.
Other sources hint that, although Chaghadai may not have initially challenged Ogedei for head of the empire, his descendants in their subordinate khanate in central Asia wrangled with their royal relations in China in later years.

Mongol leaders within the Chaghadai khanate vied with each other for territory and power. They also fought and engaged in political maneuvers against their Mongol relatives in China. Although the Chaghadai khanate was subordinate to the Great Khan in China, several Chaghadai khans rebelled against this inferior position and sought to assert their independence. - The Chaghadai Khanate - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

So, although the opening struggle did not appear to have occurred, it was certainly within the realm of possibility.

I also could not find references to Ogedei's struggle with a heart condition.  Most sources refer only to a drinking habit that earned the scorn of his older brother, Chaghadai.  But, introducing the threat of imminent death as a major influence in Ogedei's life and the choices he makes as he molds the vast territories conquered by his father into a well-administered empire does add more humanity to the tale.

After the question of Great Khan is settled, Ogedei, along with his younger brother Tolui, march east to complete the conquest of the Chin while Subutai leads the young Mongol princes, including Batu, son of Genghis' dead eldest son Jochi, Guyuk, son of Ogedei, Baider, son of Chaghadai, and Mongke, Tolui's eldest son, on a qwest to conquer the lands west of the empire all the way to the sea.  This is a small rearrangement of history on Iggulden's part as Subutai commanded part of the troops for Ogedei during the action against the Chin before turning his attention to the west but it helped to separate the two fields of operation for the reader.

Portrait of Ögedei Khagan (the 14th century). ...Ogedei Khan.  Image via Wikipedia

[Spoiler alert] In the east, Ogedei comes up against some of the first devastating uses of gunpowder and his
 troops are mangled badly.  In the book, it is here that Ogedei suffers what appears to be a devastating stroke that leaves him comatose.  His shaman sacrifices 12 white mares in an effort to appease Tengri, the Mongol Sky Father.  But the khan does not stir until the shaman  suggests the sacrifice of a family member in his pleadings to the supreme deity.  Taking the Khan's stirrings as an omen, the shaman requests a meeting with Khassar and Tolui and explains what he believes to be a clear sign of the type of sacrifice the gods have indicated.  At the council, another event happens that points to Tolui as the designated choice.
The next passages were absolutely heart wrenching to me.  After an emotional day of preparation, Tolui sacrifices himself, but not by drinking a sacrificial brew as described in the The Secret History of the Mongols.  Tolui   performs an act of butchery on his own body as if he was a sacrificial animal.  As I listened, tears actually streamed down my face.

The sacrifice of Tolui has actually been the focus of an interesting analysis by University of Leeds scholar, Geoff Humble in his paper "A Princely Sacrifice? The Death of Tolui in Imperial Mongol Historiography".  He expresses his opinion that various versions of the story were used by the descendants of Tolui, most notably Kublai Khan, to reinforce their political legitamacy.

Meanwhile, Subutai and the princes conquer Russia, Bulgaria and Hungary.  The dynastic complications include friction between Ogedei's designated warlord Subutai and young Prince Batu.  In "Genghis: Bones of the Hills" Iggulden had imagined that Genghis Khan ordered Subutai to track down his son Jochi and dispatch him for disobeying his father and taking his tumens back to Mongolia while his father was mopping up his conquest of the Khwarezmian Empire.  (Some scholars speculate that Genghis actually ordered the poisoning of Jochi but there is no conclusive evidence).  Before Subdutai found Jochi, Genghis' son had fathered a child without a formal marriage ceremony and the boy, Batu, as a bastard, had endured much abuse outside of the Mongol's tribal social structure.

When Ogedei becomes Khan, he orders Batu to join the tumens and undergo military training then take his rightful place in command of a tumen as a prince of the nation.  But Batu has not forgotten who slaughtered his father in the snow and he can barely control his hatred for his superior commander  Subutai.

Much of this part of the story is embroidery as there is no evidence of such a connection between Subutai and Batu but again it added tension to the narrative.

In eastern Europe, the Mongols meet  heavily armored knights including the fearsome Templars and Hospitallers of Crusade fame.  But, as scholar Robert Marshall points out, knights of the  13th century were used primarily as "head-bashers" supported by infantry composed of  untrained and badly equipped peasants forced to fight for their liege lords.  In the battle for Moscow, Iggulden describes how the peasant infantry are actually whipped into battle by troop handlers commissioned by the ruling noblemen.   Furthermore, the knights, although expensively equipped, were also not trained as line officers and offered little in the way of a formal chain of command once the battle was joined.

Examples of 13th century Hospitaller armor.  Image courtesy of Medieval: Total War.

"By contrast the Mongols were a tightly disciplined fighting machine, in which each soldier knew his place and his responsibilities.  He did not fight as an indiivdual, but as part of a massive formation that was led in and out of well-drilled manoeuvres.  When the Mongol army advanced they approached as a series of long single ranks, made up of a number of units.  The first two consisted of heavy cavalry, followed by three ranks of light cavalry.  Out on either flank and up front were further, smaller detachments of light cavalry."

"An encounter with the enemy was rarely a surprise because there were scouts out in the field who were able to communicate with the main body through a system of flags and messengers.  When the enemy had been engaged, either on the flank or in front, the outer detachments quickly became the vanguard and were soon reinforced from the rear.  Once the enemy's position and disposition had been discovered, the three rear ranks of light cavalry would move up through the ranks of heavy cavalry and gallop up to the line.  Rarely would any of these detachments engage the enemy in close combat.  Instead they would detach small squadrons of some ten or twenty riders to gallop across the enemy's line, pouring in a deadly shower of arrows."

"The Mongols also preferred to manoeuvre the enemy's ranks to exactly where they wanted them.  They did this by deploying the manudai, a corp of 'suicide troops' that charged straight at the enemy line.  As they approached within range of the engemy, they would suddenly break ranks, turn and flee.  The sight of the Mongols in flight was a tempatation that most enemy commanders could not resist.  With the enemy cavalry in hot pursuit, the mangudai galloped to a prearranged spot - where the rest of the army lay in wait."  - Storm from the East: from Ghengis Khan to Khubilai Kahn by Robert Marshall, University of California Press, 1993.

The Mongols also employed sophisticated siege weapons in their European campaigns illustrated below in a manuscript by Rashid al-Din:

The graphic description of the hard-fought battles  Iggulden splashed across the closing pages of the novel kept me listening raptly and more than once I went well past the time needed for my morning exercise routine.

There seems little doubt that Subutai and the Mongol Princes could have swept the rest of Europe and only  Ogedei's sudden death (in the book from an apparent heart attack while history attributes it to a protracted drinking bout) saved the rest of Europe from total defeat.  I can't help but  wonder what political differences there would be today if that defeat had, in fact, happened.  Would the current East-West schism have been totally avoided if the ill-timed death of one man had not occurred at that moment in history?

Khan: Empire of Silver: A Novel of the Khan Empire  Storm from the East: From Genghis Khan to Khubilai Khan    Genghis: Birth of an Empire (Genghis Khan: Conqueror Series #1) by Conn Iggulden   Genghis: Lords of the Bow   Genghis: Bones of the Hills

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