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"He's not an obviously sympathetic candidate. All people know is that his name is synonymous with pillage and destruction. And he had few redeeming qualities. He wasn't even nice to his dogs. But in terms of achievement, he is the greatest rags-to-riches story of all time. He started with nothing. He was abandoned and left to die. So to achieve what he did, it struck me, was pretty impressive."
So writes Conn Iggulden about his bestselling Conqueror series. The person in question, for those who have not had the pleasure of reading these books, is Genghis Khan - I can only imagine what a hard sell that must have been to his publishers. The first three books in the series (Wolf of the Plains, Lords of the Bow and Bones of the Hills respectively) tell the tale of Genghis' life; his rise from outcast to becoming the first person to unite the warring tribes of the central Asian steppes, and his founding of the Mongol nation out of what had previously been disparate groups of sheep herding nomads. It is a truly remarkable story, and one that I had assumed was over once the third novel has drawn to a close with the Great Khan's death. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that Iggulden intends to take things further and explore the legacy of Genghis and the impact of the rest of the Khan dynasty. If Genghis' story is one little known in the West today, then those of his descendants is truly surprising for how much these long-forgotten people dominated Asia and came within touching distance of turning the tide of European history forever.
Empire of Silver opens two years after Genghis' death, with the Mongol nation in a state of uncertainty. The Great Kahn's nominated heir, his third son Ogedai, has yet to take the oaths of the people that will see him elevated to his father's position as leader of the nation, leaving the Mongols at peace but also fearing the future and the new leader it may bring them. In the intervening time Ogedai has devoted his attentions to spending the new found wealth and plunder of his people on building a great white city in the plains of central Asia, a new capital for the Mongol nation that he hopes will stand as a symbol of their power and influence to the world. As word of this project spreads, people flock to the expanding Karakorum; Chinese builders, Moslem healers and Christian monks all come to his city to benefit from its wealth and favours. But peace does not sit well with a nation whose most valued asset is the martial skills of its warriors, and Ogedai comes close to losing his life more than once as ruthless family members seek to take advantage of the power vacuum.
Finally grasping power, Ogedai Khan seeks to show the world that he is his father's son, for all the city-building, commissioning of artworks and planting of palace gardens that have taken place under his orders. Leaving the homelands of his nation under his uncle's control, he and one army of mounted horse archers strike east to take on the formidable might of the nation's great enemy, the Song Dynasty. A second army, under the leadership of the great general Tsubodai, who brought Genghis many of his conquests, heads west to bring lands not previously visited under the control of the Mongols. Genghis may have made a nation for his people, but it is Ogedai who sets about making the nation an Empire.
While I can fully understand why Genghis Khan's life and legacy has made so little impact on Western fiction, the story Iggulden produces from history is so astounding that it makes you wonder why it isn't more commonly known. For those of us reading this book in Europe, it is remarkable - and rather frightening - to read of the apparent ease with which the Mongol Golden Horde (as they become known) swept over five thousand miles from their capital to destroy large swathes of Russia, and to reach into Hungary, Bulgaria and Poland - the furthest scouts of the army even ventured as far as Northern Italy. When I visited Budapest several years ago, I can recall the National Museum telling of the destruction of the city and the loss of the country's army, which was effectively non-existent for a generation such was the death rate of young men in Hungary during the Mongol attacks. The Horde reached no further West than this out of choice rather than because they were repelled by European forces; reading this novel makes you wonder what the impact would have been on Western history had they have kept going. For one thing, I would probably be writing this Mongolian or Chinese.
Empire of Silver is a well-written, absorbing and realistic book, as much as any of Iggulden's previous works. He has a knack of writing exciting prose that sweeps you along; I have heard his writing described as like you are reading a Hollywood blockbuster, and I think this is pretty accurate. The prose is direct and sticks with the fast-paced action all the way through the story, just occasionally switching to the viewpoint of someone standing in the way of the Mongol armies, to demonstrate to the reader what a frightening force they could be, attacking with devastating speed and accuracy, and apparently unstoppable. Never are we deflected by irrelevancies or padding - this is 400 pages of non-stop action. In particular, Iggulden excels at making great historical battles both understandable and logically clear, something which reminds me a lot of Bernard Cornwell. His characters also come across as realistic people. He once said that his mother, a history teacher, told him that people in the past were the same as people today, they just lived 1,000 years ago. He must have taken this to heart, as the motivations, actions and personalities in his books are all ones that are very recognisable for all the otherness of the settings.
If I had to raise a criticism of this book, it would be that it deals in a lot of complexities - a vast network of family members and characters, and large geographical areas are covered - and some visual aides to this would have helped. A family tree to remind the reader of the web of relations between the characters would have been useful, and a map or two to help me appreciate the scope of the areas under discussion would have just has completed the book for me. In the two years since I read the last instalment in this series I have read an awful lot of other things; trying to recall the plot significance of a specific Mongol warrior on the periphery of previous events took some doing in places, and for this reason it took me a while to really "settle in" to the story.
In the end, though, what we are left with is another cracking read from Conn Iggulden, and one I would heartily recommend to fans of the author's previous books and to those who like really meaty historical fiction. This is not a book that can be read alone, but reading the previous three Conqueror works is a worthy investment of your time.
"Empire of Silver" by Conn Iggulden
Published by Harper Collins (2010), 448pp.
RRP £18.99, current Amazon.co.uk price £9.49