Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Genghis: Bones of the Hills by Conn Iguldden


Any novel that takes on the life of the Mongolian conqueror Genghis Khan has to be dramatic and sweeping in its scale, to do justice to the enigmatic life of its subject. Conn Iggulden's Genghis: Bones of the Hill was my first Kindle purchase and a great introduction into the author's view of Mongolian steppe life. I'm late to the Khan series and reading the books out of sequence, but Iggulden completely immerses his reader in the storyline, so that I had a good feeling for the character development from the two earlier novels.

Genghis' sons, brothers, and generals have completed bloody military campaigns against the Khan's enemies. On the southern steppes, the great general Tsubodai has defeated Russians in battle with the support of Jochi, Genghis' eldest son. In the kingdom of Koryo, the second son Chagatai and General Jelme await the full submission of the Koryon emperor. On the outskirts of Chin lands, Genghis' brother Khasar with the Khan's third son Ogedai plans the final destruction of Kaifeng. All receive the summons to return home at Genghis' command because he plans to make war on the Islamic dynasty of Khwarezmia.  

The relationships in the novel bear a tremendous strain, the most obvious being the conflicts between Genghis and Jochi, and in turn, Jochi and Chagatai. The divisions stem from Jochi's conception. Early in Genghis' first marriage, his wife was stolen and given away to another man. He rescued her and within a year, she gave birth to Jochi. Genghis cannot forgive his son for the circumstances of his conception, and Chagatai as his brother's rival refuses to follow "the rape-born whelp," his favorite term for Jochi. He even goes so far as goading Jochi into fighting a tiger, and nearly deserting him in a key moment of battle. Jochi's resentment is painfully laid bare on the pages, and his plight is sympathetic.

When Genghis sends his family and generals against the Khwarezmia Dynasty, Iggulden also provides the viewpoint of the enemy, the Shah Alaudin and his eldest son, Jelaudin. Iggulden shows great skill in portraying equally sympathetic antagonists and protagonists. The Shah and his son begin with the intent of destroying the Mongol invaders, but soon Alaudin dies and Jelaudin must struggle to assume his father's power.

Everything about life on the steppes is hard for the characters, whether in the daily struggle to survive brutal weather or fierce conflicts, or in the punishments they mete out to various enemies. Each character is fully fleshed out, their emotions deftly sketched. Iggulden makes the reader feel Genghis' righteous fury against the Shah for the deaths of his men, his general Tsubodai's sadness when the Khan asks him to commit a murder that goes against his principles, and Jelaudin's religious fervor, in equal parts. While Amazon reviews are sharply divided over the merits of Iggulden's writing (one reviewer claimed "the author has raped historical facts..."), I loved Genghis: Bones of the Hill, even for its bittersweet ending. I look forward to reading an advance copy of the next title from Iggulden, Khan: Empire of Silver.