Saturday, July 7, 2012

Conn Iggulden’s ‘Bones of the Hills’

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“What is best in life? To crush your enemies, drive them before you, and hear the lamentation of their women.”  This time I’m not quoting Arnold in the movie, but straight from the source – Genghis Khan.  This wolfish ethic runs through all the pages of Conn Iggulden’s ‘Bones of the Hills,’ third in his Conqueror series.

It seems I’ve been on a historical fiction bend lately.  It’s getting harder to find F&SF with the flavor I like, or writers that I like, so I’ve turned to Pressfield, Perez-Reverte and Bernard Cornwell, and lately, Conn Iggulden.  Bones of the Hills is my first Iggulden purchase, chosen for its focus on one historical figure in particular: not Genghis, but Genghis’ estranged son, Jochi.

I’ve always had a very strong interest in the medieval Mongols, and Jochi is particularly intriguing for me because of the mystery and tragedy surrounding him.  Born shortly after the young Genghis recovered his wife Borte from a kidnapper, it was never certain who Jochi’s true father was.  It’s probably Genghis’ attachment to his first and chief wife Borte, or perhaps he was hedging his bets on heirs given the uncertainty of any son’s survival, but it’s interesting that he never repudiated his doubtful firstborn.  Instead he raised him up to be one of his generals. In the end, however, Genghis chose Ogodei, his youngest son, to succeed him instead of either Jochi or the next-born, Chagatai.

The first scene after the prologue, when Subotai surprises Jochi by handing him command of a strike against some Russian knights, was enough to make me buy the book outright.  You’ll end up rooting for Jochi through most of the book, specially in comparison with Chagatai, who had a historical reputation for hot-headedness.

Jochi’s rivalry with Chagatai forms an electric thread throughout the novel, and this was really what kept me reading.  After consuming Cornwell’s work, I’m sorry to say I find Iggulden’s prose rather flat.  If you’re familiar with Raymond Feist, imagine what his work was like before he got Magician edited.  Serviceable, but it could be better.

On the other hand, though, the book is packed with great details.  Iggulden’s done a lot of research, it seems, and he succeeds in bringing to life the daring and vastness of the Mongol conquests.  You’re whisked from the shores of the Caspian Sea to Korea then back west to Samarkand within just a few chapters, much as the Mongols themselves rode.

I’ll not spoil the book for your reading by revealing Jochi’s fate in it, but I’ll just say I think it’s historically plausible.  He sort of drops out of history just before Genghis’ death, but his descendants would go on to found the Golden Horde.

Will I buy the rest of the series? The value of these books for me is their content and perspective, not the storytelling, so I’ll cherry-pick from points and characters I want to follow.  This probably means my next Iggulden acquisition will be Conqueror, which revolves around Kublai Khan.

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