Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Review - Conquerer: A Novel of Kublai Khan by Conn Iggulden

Short review: Under three different Great Khans the Mongols expand their Empire sending Hulegu into the Middle-East and Kublai into China. Then, civil war breaks out and it is Mongol against Mongol for the first time in three generations.

Gyuk, then Mongke,
Then war with Arik-Boke
Kublai is Great Khan

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: Conqueror: A Novel of Kublai Khan is the fifth and final book in Conn Iggulden's Conqueror series, picking up right where Empire of Silver left off. Just two generations after Genghis united the Mongol nation under one banner and set about conquering the world, the empire he forged is already beginning to fragment. After the death of Ogedai Khan, his son Gyuk moved quickly to consolidate power under himself, but as the novel opens, it is clear that he is probably not up to the task of ruling the vast domains of the Mongol nation. In Conqueror, the Mongol nation reaches its greatest heights which paradoxically are the very things that will destroy it. In the book, the stories of four Great Khans unfold, three revealing lessons that the Mongol nation is simply unequipped to learn, and the fourth giving the reader a glimpse of the final undoing of everything that Genghis had wrought.

The Mongols were history's ultimate wild card coming out of seemingly nowhere to establish the largest empire in history. But within just a few generations, their empire was just a bad memory,  a time of misery and suffering for their neighbors that had come and gone. And in Conqueror, by showing the Mongols at the height of their power, Iggulden illustrates why this is the case, revealing that for all their power and cruelty, the empire they established was little more than an empty shell. With nothing holding their nation together but oaths and the promise of wealth gained by conquest, the Mongols' unity was fragile at best. And lacking in any cultural gifts beyond that of the horse, the bow, and a ruthless approach to warfare, the Mongols had to borrow from those they conquered to control their empire, ceding the running of their conquests to those they had conquered. And in this regard, they are sort of like the prizefighter who has won lots of money by fighting, but then turns over the responsibility of managing that money to accountants and lawyers without any real understanding of what they are doing on his behalf. Or what he presumes is his behalf.

At the outset of the story, Gyuk, with the assistance of his mother Torogene, has planted himself at the head of the Mongol nation. But it is clear that Gyuk, trained exclusively in the direct brutality of Mongol warfare, is entirely unequipped to engage in the delicate political maneuvering required to maintain the loyalty of the various factions within the nation he aspires to lead. Gyuk does not learn the important lesson that rulers must learn: your power is not absolute unless you can command the loyalty of those who you would command, and attempting to assert your absolute authority over them against their will is hazardous. And Gyuk's reign is challenged almost immediately by the non-appearance of Batu, who simply did not appear at the ritual oath swearing, and has instead ensconced himself in the forests of Russia. It is here that the story shows both that holding an empire is much different from conquering one and the most valuable possessions that an empire has are its own constituent parts. As Gyuk leads an army to bring Batu to heel, Kublai begins almost unknowingly to sow the seeds of his own rise to power.

And the resolution of Gyuk's campaign against Batu reveals yet another weakness of the Mongol system: by creating a political structure dependent upon personal loyalty to one man, it is possible to disrupt the actions of that structure merely by removing that one man. And as a result, the entire nation grinds to a halt and goes into reverse whenever power changes hands. And after Gyuk's undistinguished turn at the helm, power transfers to Tolui's line and Mongke takes control of the nation as Great Khan. And Mongke's instinctive answer to the dissolute nature of Gyuk's reign is to try to return to the ways of their forefathers and rule from the saddle. However, unlike Gyuk, he is clever enough to realize that he cannot simply leave the administration of his domains to the Chinese servants, but he does send his brothers Hulegu and Kublai to expand the dominions of his suzerainty - giving Kublai strict instructions that he must give up his "soft" adoption of Chinese customs and prove himself to be a true Mongol Khan.

The contrast between Hugelu and Kublai makes clear exactly why the Mongol nation's influence on history is so ephemeral. Hulegu is sent west, to Persia and Arabia to seek his Khanate among the Islamic nations, while Kublai heads east, to carve out his own fiefdom from the domains of the Chinese emperor. In one case, the Mongols operate according to the "old" ways - treating their invasion much like a giant raid seeking riches and revenge. Hulegu's goal, it seems, is to try to extract as much gold from Baghdad and the surrounding cities as possible and cart it away. Nothing else about Baghdad or its people interests Hugelu - not their knowledge, their achievements, or even what they might produce in the future. He starves the city, disarms it, ransacks it, and destroys much of its populace in a wasteful orgy of slaughter. Hulegu also exposes the weakness that will doom the Mongol political system: despite the oft repeated boast that a Mongols' "word is iron", he feels no remorse over repeatedly breaking promises made to al-Mustasim. And alongside Hulegu's petty lust for gold, is his petty lust for revenge as he seeks to bring to a close the unfinished business between Genghis' family and the cult of Assassins, expending an enormous volume of manpower and effort on the vendetta, to the point where the success of his military campaign is jeopardized. The lesson Iggulden drives home with Hulegu's campaign is that despite their glorious victories, despite their ruthless conquests, the Mongols are little more than bandits who can lay siege to cities. And because of this, once their victims have weathered the storm, they will be essentially unchanged by the passing horde.

But on the other side of the continent, Kublai reveals the other side of the coin: the "new" ways adopted from the Chinese via his mentor Yao Shu. Perhaps because he faced an enemy that outnumbered him so immensely, perhaps because he absorbed the "soft" lessons of civilization from Yao Shu, or perhaps because he figured out that a populace hard at work is more profitable than a populace decimated and terrorized, Kublai adopted a policy of not turning his men loose upon conquered cities to loot, rape, and pillage. And this leads Kublai to have to pay his men, which means he has to find a source of bullion, which constrains his actions. By seizing towns rather than destroying them, by making the populace his subjects rather than his victims, and by trying to rule a functioning economy rather than acting as a parasite, Kublai transforms the Mongols he leads into something more, but he also makes himself vulnerable in the same ways that the Mongols themselves exploited when conquering their enemies. In effect, to have any chance at conquering China, Kublai has to become Chinese, and therein lies the seeds of the Mongols' destruction. Because they have no cultural achievements of their own, they have to borrow them from those they conquer, and in doing so cede their own nature, trading their identity for that of their subjects. In a way, Kublai is as trapped by his Mongol heritage as Hugelu, and his actions are just as futile. The only change that the Chinese will feel is the identity of the men giving the orders, but their way of life will go on unchanged.

Finally, when Mongke dies unexpectedly, it precipitates the final lessons as to why the Mongol empire faded so quickly. First, the Mongols' have to learn the lesson that all empires eventually learn: before too long, the most valuable prize to be had is the empire itself. And when both Arik-Boke and Kublai claim the position of Great Khan, the Mongols face their most dangerous foe when they turn against one another. Paradoxically, though the novel is named Conqueror, presumably in honor of the final victor in this conflict, the only land that he conquers in this volume is the Mongol nation itself. But this internal conflict reveals the inherent weakness of the Mongols - when Kublai must secure the loyalty of Alghu, the Mongol ruler of Samarkand who had already given his oath to Arik-Boke he says that as the true Great Khan he can relieve Alghu of his oath to the false one. And to save himself, Alghu assents to this and changes his loyalty from one brother to the other. But this reveals that the Mongol oaths are meaningless except when backed by force, and if someone else shows up with more force, then those oaths can be cast aside. And by highlighting this, Iggulden is exposing the Achilles heel of the Mongol political system, because it relies upon the strength of personal oaths, and once it is revealed that those oaths can be cast aside, the nation is on the path to disintegration.

In Conqueror, Iggulden shows the Mongol empire at the height of its power and influence.  But he also skillfully shows the reader that the nomadic tribesmen that leapt to world dominance from the cold steppes of Mongolia were uniquely suited to conquer the world, but remarkably ill-equipped to actually rule what they had gained. By the time the events in this novel had rolled around, the rapid ascent to power had sown the seeds of the empire's own destruction. By showing us the Mongols as they were and showing them on their own terms, Iggulden shows us why they were a force that stood over all of Asia, but also shows us why they swept over the world and left a legacy that is remarkable only for its paucity. Conqueror, with a cast of interesting and well-drawn characters, contains a strong story set in one of the most turbulent periods in history and brings to a close the fascinating journey Iggulden crafted that took the reader on a guided tour of the rise of the largest empire in history.

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