“I am the land, and the bones of the hills. I am the winter. When I am dead, I will come for you all in the coldest nights.”
Reading historical fiction is always a fun thing to do. I’ve given up on reading mainstream fiction since I had to devote more time to reading history and political science books, but lately I’ve crossed over to historical fiction for a healthy dose of escapism. I liken this genre to the summer blockbuster movie — while not necessarily a great film, it’s great entertainment. Every now and then of course, we have a movie that is both.
Case in point, Conn Iggulden’s Genghis: Birth of an Empire (published in the UK as Wolf of the Plains — a more impressive title) which is a terrific piece of fiction and an even more terrific window into the life and times of Genghis Khan. I picked this book entirely on a whim — that cover doesn’t inspire much — since I was convinced by Deepak Chopra’s Buddha (read my review) that there is much to enjoy in a good historical fiction book. And indeed, it turns out that I enjoy Genghis even more than Buddha.
Inspired by The Secret History of the Mongols (the leading primary source into the life and times of Genghis Khan), Conn Iggulden fantastically weaves a story that moves at a breathtaking pace from the birth of Temujin to his first unification of the warring Mongol tribes, and to his assumption of the title Genghis (which a lot now rather put as ‘Chinggis’) upon claiming his birthright as the rightful khan of the Wolves.
While this book is pegged as the first of a series, Iggulden leaves nothing unresolved by the end — and there are a lot of plot threads! From the death of his father Yesugei to their abandonment in the plains at the hands of his father’s bondsman Keeluk; from his betrothal to the elusive Borte to the capture of his wife by the Tartars; from their desperation in the plains to his unification of all the wondering tribes in it; all of these stories beautifully dovetail into the final exhilarating chapters of the book when Temujin — whose name means iron — brings his vision of a nation, bound not by blood but by brotherhood, closer to reality.
However, what I find even more impressive would be the depth of the characters; everyone is clearly defined and recognizable. Above all, I am impressed with how Iggulden brings honor into his characters. Writing about characters living in times of blood pacts and feuds, Iggulden is able to depict a Genghis that is noble, wise and yet infinitely human. He is a man of his words, even though he finds it impossible to speak at times. He bears the weight of everyone relying on him for strength and direction, and seeks the same inspiration from all who look up to him. And it isn’t only Genghis who will be unforgettable by the book’s end; we have his loyal brothers Kachiun and Kahsar, the near-mythic swordsmith Arslan, and a surprising revelation from one of the characters from the Chin empire (China).
(At one point, I dreamed of having my students read this book so we can discuss the motivations of the different characters and how they reflect the times. It’s that good a window to history! But as of now, this is a financial challenge — the book is still in hardbound — and I’m not too keen on photocopying entire books. It’s really awesome though, and will be the best 381 pages of their lives.)
Being a work of historical fiction, it goes without saying that the author took a lot of liberties with the story. Nonetheless, he provides a handy afterword to enumerate the changes he made for dramatic effect and he also explains why. Yet, I can say — having read a more historical text on Genghis — that the major events and themes remain consistent with the actual history. Iggulden’s work only reads much better, much stronger and has much more gravitas.
This is a really epic piece of work, and the best part is that it isn’t finished. Everything ends with all of their eyes set on Chin (China), and we all know how that ends. Book two entitled “Lords of the Bow” comes out in January 2008 and work on book three is under way. The wait is unbearable, but then it will be worth it.
Six stars out of five.