Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Review - Khan: Empire of Silver - A Novel of the Khan Empire by Conn Iggulden

Short review: Ogedai's health fails him while Tsubodai and Genghis' grandsons wage war in Eastern Europe.

Ogedai now rules
Builds a city, then he dies
Sparks dynastic fight

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Khan: Empire of Silver - A Novel of the Khan Empire is set during the transitional period during the reign of the now mostly forgotten Ogedai Khan, third son and heir of Genghis, between the death of Genghis Khan and the brutal internecine struggle that led to the ascendancy of Mongke Khan. Having swept across most of Central Asia and China during Genghis' lifetime, the Mongols have to set about the more difficult task of ruling an empire, a task that seems to be as agonizing and transformative for the Mongols as it is for their subject nations. In Khan: Empire of Silver, Iggulden ties together the progressing civilizing of the Mongol elite, the vicious military campaigns that led the Mongol warriors to the banks of the Danube, and the complex web of familial relationships that dominated Mongol politics and ultimately proved to be the undoing of their Empire.

Though, as one would expect in a novel that covers the entire breadth of an empire that spans all of Asia, there is a large cast of characters, in a sense, the personal stories of the two central characters of Ogedai and Tsubodai are symbolic of the changes that are taking place in the Mongol nation as a whole. Ogedai, whose power is consolidated as he completes his massive city of Karakorum and cements his position as ruling Khan in the first segment of the book, is also afflicted with personal infirmities that ultimately result in the sacrifice of his own brother Tolui, and an increasing dependence upon those around him to conduct the daily business of exerting his tremendous power. Eventually Ogedai becomes dependent upon others just to stay alive. This seems to reflect the growing pains of the Mongol Empire, which has ascended to the pinnacle of power, dominating all those it has encountered, but has been forced to make a bloody sacrifice of its own people to do so, and, over the course of the book, becomes increasingly dependent upon outsiders to run their vast holdings. The descendants of Genghis are in the driver's seat, but while the Mongol warriors ride through the hardships of winter campaigning in Russia, Chinese bureaucrats assume positions of power within the halls of Karakorum.

And Karakorum itself, built at Ogedai's order in the middle of nowhere at vast expense, is symbolic of the changes thrust upon the Mongols accompanying their position perched atop the world stage. Despite the disdain of many of the older cadre of leaders who had been in Genghis' inner circle, the fundamental truth comes through that ruling over an empire requires that one accept the burdens of civilization as well, because without them, it is impossible to actually rule, as opposed to merely engage in despoiling raids. But the Mongols, a people comprised of nomadic herdsman with a supreme talent for warfare, don't have the skills necessary to build a civilization. So the city that serves as their capital is designed by foreign architects, built by foreign craftsmen, and populated by foreign artisans and merchants while the Mongols themselves live in vast camps outside the city and then journey away to wars in distant lands. Though he does not come out directly and say it, it seems that one point Iggulden is attempting to make is that by becoming so specialized as a war making machine, the Mongol nation has ended up ruling over a hollow empire: they provide the military might, but the empire is run by, and much of the benefits derived by others. In this context, the much touted Mongolian tolerance for the faiths and customs of their subject peoples seems not so much like an act of magnanimous generosity so much as an act of necessary self-interest.

And this is reflected in the story surrounding Tsubodai, whose brilliant and brutal thrust through Russia and into the Balkans dominates the third and final section of the book. Iggulden shows the cunning stratagems employed by Tsubodai to outwit and outmaneuver his enemies, and the utter ruthlessness he employs, driving his forces to fight in the harsh cold of the Russian winter so as to be able to use the frozen rivers as highways leading directly into his foe's towns and cities, and the viciousness with which Tsubodai and his soldiers dispatch those enemies who dare to stand against them. But the larger story is that no matter how brilliant his military maneuvers are, the world is changing around him, represented in the story by the accumulation of Genghis' grandsons Batu, Guyuk, Baidur, and Mongke, all of whom travel with his army and technically outrank him. Sweeping one's enemies before you and gaining glory in battle, while still valued (as this is the reason why so many of Gengis' heirs accompany Tsubodai on his western campaign), clearly takes a secondary position behind jockeying for political advantage. While Tsubodai's skill leading an army to victory is unmatched, he is smart enough to see that his particular set of talents is becoming less and less central to the plans of Genghis' heirs although this realization both galls and chafes him.

This transformation is reflected time and again in the book as the old guard slowly fades away, and is replaced by a collection of new leaders more interested in securing their position within the Empire than in expanding its dominions. The aging warriors are felled by sickness, as with Khasar and Kaichuin, or by subterfuge as with Temuge and Chagatai. It seems symbolic that Temuge's attempt at royal assassination is foiled by a pair of women and a Chinese servant. It seems even more symbolic that while Chagatai's bid for power in the first section of the book involved the massing of thousands of soldiers and a bloody nighttime assault upon the bedchamber of his rival, his own downfall in the final stages of the book is accomplished via subtle intrigue and a kirpan dagger. Having conquered an empire, the Mongols had begun to turn on themselves in pursuit of personal gain. The story of the Mongols to this point had been the story of wars against others, from this point on the story of the Mongols would be dominated by wars against themselves, a point that comes through clearly in the latter stages of Iggulden's book.

The book reaches its climax with Tsubodai's campaign into Hungary that led to his most famous battle in which he defeated and destroyed the Hungarian army led by King Bela in 1241 AD. Instead of following up on this victory and leading the Mongol army to Vienna and into western Europe, the news of the death of Ogedai turns the Horde back to the East, so the Mongolian princes may secure their positions in the new ruling order. In the end, Iggulden adds an author's note in which he states that had Ogedai not died when he did, that western Europe would almost certainly have been overwhelmed and all of the subsequent development of western culture would have been swept away, a position that seems to be a fairly common one. It seems to me that this was not such a foregone conclusion - and the way the historical events are portrayed in the book suggest that as well. That the Mongols could have conquered the Holy Roman Empire, France, and possibly England as well as the rest of western Europe seems to be well within the realm of possibility (and has driven plot lines in several other books, such as Ben Bova's Orion), but they were far from home, and had endured numerous campaigns in which they fought and maneuvered in harsh winter conditions, depleting their ranks and weakening the survivors. Just as Alexander's men rebelled when he came to the borders of India, it seems that at some point the Mongol warriors would have reached the end of their own endurance. One also has to wonder about the ability of the Mongols to subdue western Europe given the historical resilience of the western states - if the Romans were able to recover from the disaster at Cannae within months, would it be outside the realm of possibility for the states of western Europe to recover from the same sort of dismemberment suffered by the eastern European armies? Finally, the increasing influence of Chinese officials in the eastern part of the Mongol Empire suggests that even if the Mongols had conquered western Europe and suppressed any rebellious impulses, that control over the levers of power would have wound up back in the hands of European officials within a generation. But Ogedai did die in 1241, and the Horde turned back as a result, so these are questions that will never be resolved.

Putting aside my idle historical speculation one is left with the fact that Iggulden has delivered a very good piece of fiction rooted in solid historical fact. Of course, the historical record is incomplete and Iggulden has had to fill in the gaps, but he does so in ways that enhance the story, and remain well within the realm of possibility. Iggulden is able to being the panoply of historical figures to life and give them motivations such that when they take actions in the story that match their actual historical actions it seems natural and not forced, deftly avoiding a trap that some historical fiction falls into. As this is the story of the Mongols, the mechanics of warfare and battle are heavily featured and both the skill of the Mongol warriors and generals is highlighted, as well as their vicious ferocity and ruthless character. Effectively combining strong character development, thrilling battle sequences, court intrigue, and historical scholarship that shows the deadly growing pains of a vast empire, Iggulden has crafted an excellent and enjoyable piece of historical fiction.

Previous book in the series: Genghis: Bones of the Hills
Subsequent book in the series: Conqueror: A Novel of Kublai Khan

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