Lords of the Bow

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 March, 2008, 12:00am

Lords of the Bow

by Conn Iggulden

HarperCollins, HK$247

He was the man who united nomadic tribes into one of the largest empires the world has seen. Genghis Khan: a name and legend that struck fear into the Chinese and the rest of Asia for generations.

As he did with Julius Caesar in his Emperor series, so the Anglo-Irish writer Conn Iggulden has welded the life and conquests of Genghis into his Conqueror epics. The latest, Lords of the Bow, sees the great khan in his prime, leading his brothers and sons into the soft heart of the Xia Xia (a vassal state of the Chin), then through the Jin dynasty empire, tearing down the walls of even Yenking (Beijing) as he does so.

Basing his story on actual events - there are notes explaining the historical circumstances - Iggulden weaves an entertaining tale of the call of war and the plains. It is perhaps no surprise to learn he also wrote the best-seller The Dangerous Book for Boys.

Despite his early conquests, setting the Mongols on the road to near-complete domination of the known world, and the achievement of having up to one in 10 men in Asia and eastern Europe directly descended from him, Genghis Khan has been conspicuous by his absence from western fiction.

While his visage adorns the currency of Mongolia and dominates the government plaza in Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar, and his name still strikes fear into unruly children in the non-Turkic Muslim countries his armies devastated, the historical conqueror remains an enigma.

That he was able to command a place in history is perhaps more amazing than the deeds that earned him fame: much of his life before 1200 was fraught with hardship. Born to the noble family of Yesugei and Ho'elun, Genghis Khan was first called Temuchin. At an early age he was betrothed to Borte, who belonged to another tribe. After leaving Temuchin with Borte's family, Yesugei was returning to his own camp when he was poisoned by Tatars.

After his father died, Temuchin returned to his family, still a boy. According to the primary source of information on Temuchin's life, The Secret History of the Mongols, he endured many hardships, including the kidnapping of his wife Borte, but slowly recruited supporters and assumed a mantle of leadership among the Mongols.

After rising to power in 1185, Temuchin experienced numerous setbacks and, eventually, victories. Scholars have proposed several reasons why Genghis Khan embarked on a career of conquest, including the demand for booty, revenge and megalomaniacal greed for territory and riches. However, as with most wars, there was never a single reason.

To his credit, Iggulden never flatters his novel as a true historical account, although he strives for accuracy at all times.

Iggulden's Genghis is a vengeful but thoughtful destroyer: a man seeing the birth of a nation amid the warring confederation of tribes and an individual drawing destiny along in his wake. Men worship him, but the women in the book are mere sideshows: wives, concubines, slaves who mop a fevered brow or occasionally chide him about his unequal treatment of his sons. Perhaps the author would argue this simply reflects the times: this is a well-crafted and interesting tale and the squabbles, scheming and diplomacy suggest hints of complexity not usually apparent in boys'-own material. How much of it is fact is unclear, but its entertainment value is assured.

What also emerges is Iggulden's fascination for ancient China, although he venerates the Mongol hordes as somehow more deserving of a place in the universe than the old emperors and their peoples. Perhaps that is because Genghis was a more powerful and charismatic figure than his enemies. He spares no one in his conquests and is quick to dispatch foes or those who challenge him.

This is where Lords of the Bow comes most alive and where it shares an almost schoolboy enthusiasm for a subject that, looked at closely, might seem gruesome. Iggulden says: 'I've always loved historical fiction as a genre and cut my teeth on Hornblower and Tai-Pan, Flashman, Sharpe and Jack Aubrey. I still remember the sheer joy of reading my first Patrick O'Brian book and discovering there were 19 more in the series. I love just about anything by David Gemmell, or Peter F. Hamilton or Wilbur Smith. I suppose the one thing that links all those is the love of a good tale.'

Newcomers to Iggulden's work will find that love of the adventure tale alive here. If you are going to tackle empire-building conquerors there are only so many you can choose from. This is a good stab at rendering the most (in)famous in a work of historical fiction.