Saturday, January 14, 2012

Conqueror: A Novel of Kublai Khan by Conn Iggulden

As part of the Librarything Early Reviewers program, I received Conqueror: A Novel of Kublai Khan by Conn Iggulden.

The synopsis from Amazon:

The novels of Conn Iggulden bring the past to thrilling life, from ancient Rome to thirteenth-century Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Now he delivers the spectacular story of the rise of Genghis Khan’s grandson, a man destined to become one of the most remarkable rulers who ever lived—the legendary Kublai Khan. 
A succession of ruthless leaders has seized power in the wake of the great Khan’s death—all descendants of Genghis, but none with the indomitable character that led a people to triumph. One grandson, Guyuk, decadent and vicious, seeks to consolidate his position through bribery and murder, pitting powerful factions against one another and straining the loyalties of the tribes to the breaking point.  
Next comes his cousin, Mongke, who eliminates all possible opposition with breathtaking brutality and dispatches his younger brothers Kublai and Hulegu to far-flung territories, to test their mettle and their allegiance. 
Hulegu displays his barbarity with the savage destruction of Baghdad and his clash with the Khan’s age-old enemies, the cult of assassins, who will strike deep into the heart of the nation. But it is Kublai—refined and scholarly, always considered too thoughtful to take power—who will devise new ways of warfare and conquest as he builds the dream city of Xanadu and pursues the ultimate prize: the ancient empire of Sung China. His gifts will serve him well when an epic civil war breaks out among brothers, the outcome of which will literally change the world.
Brilliantly researched and imagined, unforgettably told, Conqueror is a magnificent achievement from an enthralling writer at the peak of his powers, a must read for all lovers of history and storytelling on the grand scale.

When we hear tales about the Mongols, we almost always hear about Genghis Khan in the same breath. For this reason, it was refreshing to see a historical fiction about his grandson, Kublai Khan, the Mongol who ruled the territory that became present day China.

According to the author's website, this is the fifth and final novel in the "Conqueror" series. I hadn't previously read any of the previous books, and it didn't affect my understanding of the events within the story whatsoever.

The story itself is fascinating, and the factual and/or historical aspects only lend itself to the incredulity of what Kublai Khan ultimately achieved in his lifetime. We start off with him as a young man, a scholarly type, and follow along as his other relatives become Khan, during which time Kublai learns the ways of warfare - the tale ends shortly after he becomes the Great Khan.

That was probably the biggest disappointment in the story itself - there was so much more to tell - particularly his struggle in conquering the Chin territories (of present day China) - and so it seemed that the story ended sooner than it could or should have. However, this led to a greater focus on the other influences in Kublai's life, as well as the challenges he had to overcome before he could even become the Great Khan.

In retrospect, it's rather interesting to feel sympathy towards a conqueror, particularly since - although Kublai was somewhat refined as opposed to much of his kin - the Mongols, as a tribe, were considered barbaric compared to the cultures that they defeated. You wouldn't expect to feel that way - it's like cheering for Darth Vader at the height of his strength - and that sensation alone is a tremendous testament towards Iggulden's storytelling skills.

On the downside, the prose had some issues. Particularly in the beginning, there was a good deal of "head hopping" and it was hard to follow the narrative voice and attributed thoughts, feelings and dialogue. In some places, the sentences were choppy, as if translated from another language (perhaps intentional? I doubt it). I struggled with the fluidity of the prose for the first portion of the story, almost to the point where I might not have finished. Several chapters in, the problem was less prevalent, and the action of the story most certainly overcame any flaws in the telling. I flew through the last two-thirds of the story in half the time it took me to get there.

I know there are other stories with difficult beginnings, which is the only reason I mention this. To someone who is going to pick this up, knowing the gist of the tale, I would suggest soldiering on, and it'll pay off.

Overall, Kublai Khan's story, the immersion into Mongol history/culture and the appreciation to be gained for a relatively unsympathetic historical character far outweighs any of the flaws of the telling.

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