Archive | October, 2008

“The Lords of the North,” by Bernard Cornwell

30 Oct

“The Lords of the North,” by Bernard Cornwell (377p)

The Lords of the North is the third novel in Bernard Cornwell’s newest series, the Saxon Stories, about a fictitious displaced lord sworn to fight for Alfred the Great in the great struggle against the Danes of 9th century England. Beginning where The Pale Horseman finished, this third edition in a planned eight or nine part series takes place from 878 to 881.

In the southern lands, Saxon and Dane are at peace again after the bloody fight at Edington. Guthrum, the Danish King of East Anglia, has even converted to Christianity to make sure Wessex under its pious king Alfred will not break the peace. With peace assured, Uhtred finally frees himself from Alfred’s chafing Wessex court and returns to Northumbria to begin his bid to reclaim his lost birth-right, the impressive fortress of Bebbanburg and his title as the Earldorman of that fortress. Arriving in Eoferwic (modern York), he is surprised to find out that the city has been taken back by Saxons, and he helps Danish civilians escape any reprisals against them by the victorious Saxons. The rest of England is relatively stable: Wessex under the steady hand of Alfred the Great, East Anglia under the now subjugated Guthrum and Mercia split in co-existing peaceful halves along Saxon-Danish lines. Northumbria, though, is nothing more than a series of warring towns and fortresses with differing lords vying for complete control of the kingdom.

Uhtred soon encounters his childhood enemy, Sven the One-Eyed, who terrorises the Northumbrian peasantry as his father is the Lord of Dunholm (modern Durham). Uhtred dreams up an attack on Sven, pretending to be a supernatural rider dressed in black with unworldly abilities with the sword. He humiliates Sven and scares him off but also frees a Danish lord claiming to be the rightful King of Northumbria, Guthred. Guthred convinces Uhtred he is indeed the King of Northumbria and Uhtred becomes his chief advisor and helps Guthred establish a powerbase across the southern half of Northumbria. He also falls in love with Guthred’s sister, Gisela, but their romance comes to a crushing halt when Uhtred is betrayed by Guthred, his head being sold to his treacherous uncle Ælfric and Danish lord Ivar Ivarrsson (son of Ivar the Boneless) with the help of monks. Guthred sees Uhtred cast onto a slave ship as a rower, his fate left unknown.

Uhtred spends two years on the slave ship and sees a world outside of England for the first time. He goes to the far north seas and sees an island covered in ice (Iceland, I imagine) and then to continental Europe, spending a winter in Jutland where the Danes that hadn’t come to England now live. The slave ship, which also functions as a merchantman, returns to East Anglia in 871 and Uhtred thinks himself doomed when the slave ship is stormed by a vengeful Sven the One-Eyed. But Uhtred is suddenly saved by a ship commanded by Ragnar, paid by Alfred the Great to rescue Uhtred from his captivity. Uhtred returns to Northumbria with a vengeance and takes out his revenge on Guthred and his co-conspirators who sold out to Ælfric. He seems destined to return to Wessex, though, with no future to be found in Northumbria and no chance of taking back Bebbanburg until he and Ragnar learn that Kjartan, the man responsible for Ragnar the Elder’s death, has sent his men out from the fortress of Dunholm to attack Guthred in Eowferic, meaning he is weakened.

They then discover that Thyra, Ragnar’s younger sister, had been held captive there and tortured by Kjartan and Sven. So to rescue her and take their blood-feud revenge on Kjartan the two launch a daring attack on the fortress, only narrowly escaping with Thyra but ultimately defeating Kjartan and Sven. But while Uhtred and Ragnar had been busy assaulting Dunholm Ivar Ivarrsson had marched south again from the very north of Northumbria with his army. Ivar was attempting to snatch the crown of Northumbria from under the feet of an absent of Guthred, but his audacious bid ended up being scuppered in a showdown with Uhtred.

I find it hard to review The Lords of the North for a few reasons. I certainly enjoyed the novel and flew through it in no time. I liked the plot for this third edition in the Saxon Stories and enjoyed seeing Uhtred return to the wild north of England. I liked the politics of it all and really was surprised when Uhtred had been thrown into the hands of a slave trader – I certainly didn’t see that coming. But for some reason the ending of the novel made me feel a little … eh, is how I’d describe it. It just felt a little rushed and convenient in the way it was executed, and I rather did think the way Sven was defeated was a bit rubbish. Maybe Cornwell had a deadline to meet? I don’t know, but for whatever reason, the ending felt like it could have been a little more thrilling and spectacular.

The ending is about the only complaint I have from the novel. As I said, I really did like it for the most part, and heartily recommend those who enjoy Cornwell’s novels or the previous two in the series to read it as it is a great and easy read. It is full of action, the plot is quite good with lots of twists and surprise turns, and the scenery is very evocative. Lastly, as I mentioned in the The Pale Horseman review, much of Alfred’s brilliant kingship often goes missing because of the first person narrative, but in this one the proper subtlety of his workings in the fractured England come to the fore, and you will marvel at the way Cornwell works that in – it was some very good writing. The slightly disappointing conclusion aside, this is a fantastic book.



“The Pale Horseman,” by Bernard Cornwell

27 Oct

“The Pale Horseman,” by Bernard Cornwell (409p)

In the sequel to Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories, depicting to the 9th century war between Saxon and Dane over the land that would become England, is The Pale Horseman. The sequel takes place immediately after The Last Kingdom, beginning in 876 and ending two years later in 878, and is set against Alfred the Great’s darkest hours in the Swamps of Athelney and the Battle of Edington.

Uhtred, the displaced Earldorman of Bebbanburg, is bored with the peace agreed between the Danes and Wessex. He frees himself from the insufferable piety and laws of Alfred’s realm and his wife’s household and commandeers a boat, deciding to go raiding off the Cornish coast. He gets into a scrape with a Welsh king named Peredur and carries off with his wife, Iseult but an acidic monk named Asser escapes to Wales, he would come back to haunt Uhtred. On his return he faces attack from Norse raiders and decides to ally himself with a Dane, Svein the White Horse to beat off the Norse. After they part their ways Uhtred returns to the Welsh coast and conducts another raid, capturing a huge hoard of treasure that he uses to pay off his wife’s debts. He also rescues a young Dane, Haesten, from being killed.

On his return Uhtred is charged by the Witan, which is more or less an early form of parliament, for using a royal vessel to incite war from the Welsh, who Wessex is at peace with. Uhtred is determined to prove his innocence, however, and challenges the strongest warrior in the employ of the Earldorman of Wessex, Steapa. But as they duel all of Cippanhamm (modern Chippenham) is caught unawares, for Danish lord Guthrum had broken the peace and attacked. The city scatters and Uhtred, together with his friend Leofric and Iseult, hide in a field until returning in the night to rescue Eanflæd the whore at a tavern and a nun, Hild. They steal away in the night and wander about a devastated Wessex for a few weeks until stumbling upon the remnants of Alfred’s court, deep in hiding in the Swamps of Athelney, a shattered remain of the last great kingdom of the Saxons.

For nearly a year Alfred hid in the swamps, protected by the many confusing estuaries and lagoons of the swamp. Uhtred becomes his bodyguard, effectively his leading warrior, charged to protect the king but also to do the best he can in hurting the marauding Danes. He destroys a small fleet and drowns several hundred warriors in a daring attack against the tide. Uhtred amuses himself with small raids and fights, but life in the huts in the swamp is miserable for him. Alfred’s wife, Ælswith, hates Uhtred and his pagan ways, and she makes life difficult for them so he tries to spend as little time with the royal family as possible. Alfred, meanwhile, has been hard at work trying to raise the fyrd, the peasant army of his shattered kingdom. Slowly, though, the great lords of Wessex come back to Alfred’s banner and his once great army comes back together. Despite being cautious, Alfred decides to fight back – the Battle of Edington is on.

In the most decisive battle of Alfred’s war against the Danes, Uhtred somewhat reluctantly fights to save his kingdom. If he loses, Wessex would completely fall and Alfred and his family would be forced into exile in Frankia, meaning the Danes would rule all of England. Uhtred is actually not that bothered with the idea of an Alfred-less England for he had been annoyed beyond belief of spending a year with him and his piety, and would find a Danish ruled England more to his liking, for all Uhtred really wanted was to return to Northumbria and claim his birth-rate. So, Uhtred fights the bloodiest battle of his life, and the Saxons overwhelm the Danes on the hill at Edington, forcing Guthrum to flee. Wessex is saved and the Danes are forced to retreat to their kingdoms in East Anglia and Mercia, their first thrust into Wessex defeated, leaving Uhtred with unfinished business in Northumbria.

I think for a lot of fans and reviewers, The Pale Horseman is the weakest in the as yet incomplete Saxon Stories series. While the story of Uhtred’s escapades off Cornwall and Wales, his trial in front of the Witan, the surprise attack by Guthrum and the Battle of Edington were up to the usual Cornwell standards in being well told in an action-packed rollercoaster way. But the middle of the novel is just … the word I want to use is boring, but I feel plodding is more appropriate. The middle, with Alfred kicking about in the swamp, could have taken far less space in the novel. I realise Cornwell had an entire year to deal with, but a lot of it could have been cut out. It just felt like I wanted to say “come on!” and wanted it to get to the good stuff at the end, the Cornwell trademark of the big bloody battle.

As it is, The Pale Horseman is a good enough read. It tells a good enough story and I did enjoy it for the most part. It is a typical Bernard Cornwell read and as always, you know what you’re going to get. I feel, much as he did in the first novel, Cornwell displayed Alfred’s ability as a king in a very subtle way. The limitations of first person narrative mean that he can only show as much as Uhtred may have seen, but he worked around it and slowly through the 200+ pages of the year in the swamp, you see Alfred putting his kingdom back together. Another thing that I did enjoy is the way Uhtred becomes fully attached to Alfred, despite his misgivings and irritation of being around such a religious man. It is obvious that the hero grows to respect his overlord a great deal by the end of this novel.

For fans of Bernard Cornwell, or indeed the early Middle Ages, and those who enjoyed the first novel, by all means read it. I think in that respect it can only work in the scope of the series – if you don’t want to read the first novel and the rest, it’s probably a better idea to find something else to read instead as I don’t think this works as a stand-alone read.


“The Last Kingdom,” by Bernard Cornwell

27 Oct

“The Last Kingdom,” by Bernard Cornwell (327p)

The newest series from popular British author Bernard Cornwell is set against the backdrop of the turbulent 9th and 10th centuries in the land that would eventually become England. Beginning in 866, it tells the story of a fictitious young boy named Uhtred who was one of the great warriors and earls of the time as he deals with the impending Danish conquest of Saxon lands across England. The Last Kingdom takes place from 866 to 876, concluding with the Battle of Cannington.

Ten year old Osbert is the younger son of the Earldorman of Bebbanburg, Uhtred, in Northumbria. But when Danish invaders arrive, they kill Osbert’s older brother, making Osbert the new Uhtred. To get revenge for his first sons death the Earldorman Uhtred leads a raid against the Danes in Eoferwic (modern York), but he is killed and the younger Uhtred is taken prisoner. Uhtred is surprised to find that he likes life among the Danes with their wildness and no Christianity, but is also angered when he learns that his uncle, Ælfric, has usurped Bebbanburg and the earldorman title himself. He forces himself to bide his time, though, as he is still a child and a prisoner of the Danish earl Ragnar, and Bebbanburg is also seen to be the most impregnable fortress in all of England. Uhtred quickly becomes friends with Ragnar’s sons Ragnar the Younger and Rorik and also the enemy of Sven, the son of Ragnar’s shipmaster Kjartan. Their rivalry comes to ahead when Uhtred catches Sven attempting to indecently assault Ragnar’s youngest daughter, Thyra, and attacks him. He alerts Ragnar and the earl banishes Kjartan and his son, taking his eye as a prize.

The Danes launch their first southern thrust to capture the rest of the English kingdoms – Northumbria was already theirs and soon Mercia and East Anglia fell under the leadership of brothers Ivar the Boneless and Ubba. Uhtred then travels into Wessex, the last remaining Saxon kingdom, to spy for the Danes. But he is taken captive by his fathers old priest, Father Beocca, and accidentally meets the future Alfred the Great in a moment of weakness. Uhtred quickly escapes from Wessex and returns to the Danish camp as he prefers the life there – there is more freedom, less piety and more fun for him. He feels at home with the Danes.

Uhtred’s world is again turned upside down when Kjartan returns for revenge on Ragnar. Uhtred is forced to flee and returns to Wessex with no other choice. He is forced to learn to read and write (Uhtred thinks this is pointless) for Alfred, the new King of Wessex, to allow him to command warriors, his birth-right. Uhtred hates life among the Saxons again and chafes under their rules and piety, and can’t wait to begin his life as a warrior. But Alfred has one more surprise for Uhtred – he won’t let him command unless he marries, and so Uhtred is forced to wed Mildrith, a plain and pious West Saxon with massive debts owed to a landlord. He takes command during a siege against Danish lord Guthrum the Unlucky but the siege fails, and for the third time in his life Uhtred becomes a prisoner. While captive Uhtred meets Ragnar the Younger again, and they renew their friendship, helping Uhtred escape (again) back to Wessex. His wife had been taken by another earldorman, Odda, north so he heads there and meets up with Saxon forces commanded by Odda about to fight a battle at a fort named Cynwit against the Danes, led by Ubba. Uhtred seizes the chance to fight in his first proper shield wall – a symbol of honour – and his showdown with Ubba ends the novel.

The first thing many long-term Bernard Cornwell fans think when they read this is how similar to his Arthur series it is. I was the same, as I read those first, and the similarities are quite obvious for all to see. Uhtred and Derfel, the protagonist in that series, are both orphans and grow up among people not their own (Derfel is a Saxon living among Britons, Uhtred a Saxon living among Danes), both become brave famous warriors and commanders key to the success of their king. The basic plot – defending England from an invading enemy – is also the same, but those basic similarities end there. In later books, which I have read and will get reviews up soon, Uhtred becomes a far more ruthless warrior with little sentimentality, he is far more likely to kill outside of battle than Derfel is. Uhtred also has Sharpe’s tendency to be turned by anything with a pretty face whereas Derfel was entirely faithful to his wife in those stories. What I am getting at is that likely Cornwell drew inspiration from the Arthur novels with the plot and basic nuances of the novels, but Uhtred is still very much his own character and entirely different from Derfel.

The other bone of contention from Cornwell’s newest series is the portrayal of Alfred the Great. In later books he is described as being a weak man too concerned with priests and religion than the matter at hand, destroying the Danes. This is a fallacy of first-person narrative and Alfred, who was undoubtedly a brilliant leader in his own way, is shown negatively because Uhtred cannot stand his piety and rules. In that regard, it is up to the reader to make up their own mind on Cornwell’s Alfred. Subtlety, though, I think in the future novels you can see just how good a king Alfred was. He just does it mixed in between Uhtred’s narrative. It is subtle, but it is certainly there and you just have to read between the lines. Another thing to consider is that Uhtred is still very young in this, he only turns eighteen at the end of the novel, so he is very much a stereotypical headstrong bull of a young man eager to fight.

So, recommendations. The Last Kingdom is more or less the same as any Bernard Cornwell novel – fast paced, lots of action, blood curdling fighting, evocative scenery, a good villain and the presence of a heroine. For some people it may seem same-same but I loved this novel despite its arguable debating points. I loved the quick ebb and flow of the story as it barnstorms across 9th century Anglo-Saxon England, the action and the way Cornwell brings the era alive. As I have often said in my reviews, these sorts of novels are everything I look for in a read – to be amused and entertained, to escape and have some fun. That is why I recommend anyone to read it for something to do, but if you are looking for serious reads, go elsewhere. Otherwise sit back and enjoy Uhtred’s ride!


“Mr. Midshipman Hornblower,” by C.S. Forester

25 Oct

“Mr. Midshipman Hornblower,” by C.S. Forester (299p)
1793, the eve of the Napoleonic Wars, and Midshipman Horatio Hornblower receives his first command …

After the great success of the first five novels about fictitious Napoleonic-era seaman Horatio Hornblower in the 1930s and 1940s, British author the late C.S. Forester (1899-1966) set about going back to the beginning of his heroes life in the Royal Navy as a midshipman. Written as the sixth book in 1950, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is the first in the series chronologically where the young Hornblower begins his navy career, finding out he actually isn’t too bad at this naval caper.

The novel is essentially ten short stories put together, roughly in a continuous flow, beginning a short time after the last one ended. So, the first story is naturally Hornblower’s first ever assignment on a ship, the HMS Justinian. Hornblower hates life aboard the Justinian and dreads waking up every morning, and his depression becomes so severe he contrives an elaborate way to commit suicide – by challenging a much older tyrannical midshipman to a duel after a game of cards. But when the duel is a draw Hornblower transfers to HMS Indefatigable as Britain declares war on Revolutionary France. On his new ship Hornblower takes part in a capture of a French cargo ship, but when he is given command of it he forgets to make necessary repairs and the ship sinks. But that, an offence that could be a court-martial offence, is forgotten when Hornblower burns down a ship he had been taken prisoner on and rescued by the Indefatigable. Later, he commands the jolly boat in a mission to capture another French ship, but is deeply affected when a man left behind is killed as he loses the jolly boat.

Hornblower then takes part in his first land mission, albeit in the capacity as a translator for the commander of a French Royalist attempting to land an invasion in the Vendée as the locals revolt. It is unsuccessful and the revolutionary force repels them back to the waiting British ships, and Hornblower is deeply troubled by the sight of a guillotine in action. He develops a darkened view of the revolution because of it. The war then takes a turn against Britain as Spain and France sign a peace treaty, making Spain Britain’s enemy as well, and Hornblower leads a dangerous attack on a Spanish galley ship near Gibraltar. This act of bravery leads to him being made acting lieutenant but a surprise attack by the Spanish sees the sudden cancellation of his lieutenancy exam.

Hornblower then later travels to North Africa to purchase a supply of livestock, but more catastrophe befalls him when there is a fear of a plague outbreak (the last time the plague affected Europeans was sometime in the early 18th century) and he is forced to mill about in the Strait of Gibraltar for three weeks. The final short story of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower takes him to Gibraltar where he is told he is to take command of a French prize ship and transport a Duchess back to England. Predictably, the dangerous waters of the Atlantic turn against Hornblower and he is taken prisoner by Spain. He spends two years in captivity in the town of Ferrol but sees an opportunity to do … something, and with the permission of his captors, sets off into choppy sea to rescue stranded Spanish sailors. This act of bravery sees him eventually released by Spain and promoted to lieutenant by the admiralty.

The series is one of the most influential ever written – this is the inspiration of fellow historical fiction giants Sharpe and Aubrey-Maturin, Hemingway lavishes it with praise, Gene Rodenberry based leading characters on Star Trek off Hornblower, not to mention plenty of other British productions that draw inspiration from the series. With that in mind, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is certainly an interesting read, but different because it has no set plot other than these are some things that happened to Hornblower in his first year or so in the Navy. One of the main things a reader will notice about this is that there really aren’t any supporting characters to take on their personality. They are just names who drop in and out of the novel in each chapter/short story; they do not really have an identity, meaning that it is almost solely about Hornblower. And that is a good thing because it works superbly within the framework of the novel. It makes Hornblower and all of his various problems with himself all the more central to the story, so the reader is immersed in his world and spared being troubled by minor characters dominating the narrative.

Another area where Forester as an author succeeds with these novels is his skill in the narrative. One of the difficult things with Naval fiction is all the technical terms that are used, words the average reader will have no idea of. Forester is very good at explaining the meaning of something in understandable terms without it disrupting the story – he, unlike Patrick O’Brian, assumes the reader does not know how it all works, much like a young Hornblower would not, so it becomes readable and easy to follow once you get used to it.

As far as recommendations go, well, it’s hard. Naval fiction is obviously not for everyone. It can be a mouthful, and at times difficult to comprehend and understand with all the outdated technical terms. But at the same time the Hornblower novels manage to fly in the face of all the technical blustering and keep the reader entertained with a truly magnificent leading character as its star. That is why these novels remain so popular over half a century after their publication, and for that reason, if you have an interest in reading a novel of life at sea in the 18th and 19th century as Europe fought France, these are the best place to start.


“Sharpe’s Fury,” by Bernard Cornwell

14 Oct

“Sharpe’s Fury,” by Bernard Cornwell (371p)
Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Barrosa, Winter 1811

The most recent novel in Bernard Cornwell’s acclaimed Sharpe series is Sharpe’s Fury. Written in 2006 this falls eleventh in the chronological order, and tells the story of the Battle of Barrosa in 1811.

Sharpe and his men are detailed to blow up a pontoon bridge just over the border in southern Spain, but their mission goes awry when a French regiment of the line intercepts them, stranding Sharpe and a small number of riflemen on a broken pontoon with his superior officer. Sharpe is infuriated that the colonel of the French regiment, Henri Vandal, broke the agreement they made and kept his prisoners, among them the likeable Lt. Bullen. They eventually make their way to the last remaining Spanish city not in the hands of France: Cádiz. There, Sharpe finds something else to keep him occupied because anti-British conspirators in the city are blackmailing the British ambassador to Spain, who just so happens to be the Duke of Wellington’s youngest brother Henry Wellesley.

Two years prior Henry suffered the indignity of his wife running off with Lord Harry Paget, later Lord Uxbridge of Waterloo fame (whose fictional daughter is the mother of Harry Flashman), and was now a love-stricken divorcée. Henry had written a series of love letters to his new mistress, a high-priced whore named Caterina Blázquez, and those letters had fallen into the hands of a group, led by a manipulative priest named Montseny, wanting to blackmail the British out of Cádiz by publishing them in a newspaper, so Britain must get them back before the true identity of the author is made public.

Sharpe is chosen by the embassy’s official to get them back – Lord Pumphrey is he, the effeminate diplomat that Sharpe met in Copenhagen (Sharpe’s Prey). Working together Sharpe and Pumphrey eventually destroy the newspaper and retrieve most of the letters, thus sparing Henry Wellesley the embarrassment of his private life being made public. The final third of the novel then takes Sharpe and his small number of riflemen – Harper, Hagman, Perkins, Harris and Slattery – to the Battle of Barossa, as Sharpe wants to get revenge on Col. Henri Vandal for taking Bullen prisoner. As Graham’s allied forces battled Marshal Victor’s French side into a relatively pointless yet bloody draw, Sharpe eventually makes his way across the battlefield to meet Vandal, capturing him amidst the scenes of Sgt. Patrick Masterman’s capture of an imperial eagle.

This is one of my least favourite Sharpe novels. I just found it hard to care about Sharpe’s Fury and the whole time I felt as though I would have rather read something else, like I just wanted it to be over so I could tick it off the list. Yes, of course, it has all the usual expectations of any Sharpe novel – the Battle of Barrosa is told excellently, the villains are good, and the intrigue in Cádiz was quite interesting. I liked that part. Henry Wellesley made for an interesting character, so different from his more illustrious brothers, and I was delighted to see Lord Pumphrey return, as it is a great character. But overall I just struggled to care, I found myself having little interest in the novel as a whole, partly because I somewhat knew what the outcome would be. As a big fan of Sharpe and Bernard Cornwell I persevered and eventually finished it, but I shan’t remember much about it after the letters were retrieved, or have any real interest in reading it again.

I wonder if Cornwell himself cared all that much about this one either – it came in between two novels in his current Saxon series, so it is entirely possible he only wrote it to appease Sharpe fans wanting another novel. I find Sharpe’s Fury difficult to recommend for anyone to read. It offers nothing to Sharpe’s overall story due to the constraints of the ten novels that follow it; the author can hardly add a new dimension or part of his story when ten more novels succeed it, so readers won’t miss out on much if they skip it. I guess one thing that was different about Sharpe’s Fury is that a senior officer in Sir Thomas Graham did not come across as a big-headed incompetent idiot, making it a nice change from the usual description of officers in Sharpe novels. If you are interested in reading it then you know what to expect and it is interesting enough for what it is, but for casual fans not interested in reading all twenty-one don’t bother, go and read one of the better ones. You will not miss much.


“Lords of the Bow,” by Conn Iggulden

9 Oct

“Lords of the Bow,” by Conn Iggulden (526p)

In the second novel in Conn Iggulden’s “Conquerer series”, about the life of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire, comes Lords of the Bow. This second in the series depicts Genghis as an adult and his campaigns to defeat the Xi Xia Dynasty and the Jin Dynasty in the early 13th century.

Seven years after the events of Wolf of the Plains, Genghis Khan has now completed his unification of all the Mongol tribes. They are now a nation of one. But Genghis has plans far beyond simply unifying his people, he dreams of destroying the neighbouring Xi Xia and Jin kingdoms as a payback for all the years of meddling and control they had tried to exert over the Mongols. Genghis’ infamous tactics of deception are developed early on as he attempts to destroy the Xi Xia, but the walls of their cities keep him out, so he sends Khasar east to the Jin lands while he relaxes back in the mountains and plains of the Mongol homelands and tries to spend time with his four sons. Genghis is more or less absent for the second quarter of the novel as Khasar and Temüge lead the narrative in their quest to discover the secrets of a Jin city. Along the way they escape capture and encounter some of the seedier elements of medieval Chinese city as well as all the wonders of a decidedly more advanced society, but after months of travel they return to the camp of the Mongols, far to the north in the Khenti Mountains.

The story then jumps a few unspecified years to 1211. After spending a couple of winters in the mountains of the Mongol homelands, Genghis has returned to Jin China with a vengeance. The Mongols sweep through northern Jin China destroying city after city with remarkable ease thanks to the development of catapults that smash through the walls protecting each city. Genghis is now within striking distance of Yenking (modern Beijing), the capital of the Jin kingdom, and the Emperor sends his troops to a pass in the mountains called the Badger’s Mouth to block the Mongols path. Told in intricate detail of the battle, the Mongol army crushes the Jin forces thanks to a near suicidal cavalry charge led by Genghis’ younger brother, Kachiun. It’s a route and the Mongols destroy almost all of the imperial army, moving on to the capital itself where they lay siege. The Jin try to hold the Mongols at bay, even attempting to beat them not with an army but by poisoning Genghis himself, but none of it works and the great khan survives. After three years Yenking fell to Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire, and they returned home to the plains.

The scope of Lords of the Bow is massive and the characters go great distance and see new wonders, Iggulden does a great job in describing this unknown world that the Mongols must have experienced. As a reader you really get to know the landscape of Jin China through wonderful descriptions of rolling hills, plains and the impressive walls that were meant to keep Jin China protected from invaders. I really liked this part of it, but I also really liked the development of characters and relationships.

In Lords of the Bow Genghis’ youngest brother, Temüge, becomes a major player in this novel and Iggulden spends a lot of time developing Temüge’s vain yet intelligent diplomatic mind that saw him become a powerful figure in the Mongol Empire. Khasar and Kachiun play the role of loyal loving supporting brothers but both have their important moments in the novel, particularly when Genghis is nearly assassinated and the succession had to be discussed, just as they would have in Genghis Khan’s tumultuous life. Genghis’ character is also fully developed, despite being absent from about a quarter of the novel. You really get the understanding of just how ruthless Genghis Khan must have been, but also what he was like as a family man. Genghis’ relationship with his eldest son, Jochi, is one of the bigger themes of the novel and goes a long way in explaining the kind of man he was. Forget the razing of cities and crushing of armies, it’s the contempt and dislike he shows to Jochi that does it. Genghis believed the boy was a Tartar bastard. He never praises him, shows love or pride in Jochi, and rarely even acknowledges Jochi as being his. Their complex relationship is really well told when Jochi figures, particularly toward the end when the boy is reaching adulthood and Genghis passes on his fathers sword, not to Jochi, but his second son Chagatai. As a reader it is hard not to sympathise with Jochi given his treatment, but it also establishes just how ruthless Genghis Khan could be if he treated his first son with the same grace he would have treated an enemy. Yet it also showed his softer side when he dealt with Chagatai or Ogedei, both of whom Genghis reportedly loved dearly, so I really did enjoy those parts of the novel.

But what of the accuracy? Iggulden is an author that has developed a reputation for being liberal with the history, and in the author notes at the end of the novel he states that he deviated from his main source, The Secret History of the Mongols a couple of times. He has excluded a few minor events that would have added nothing to the story, pushed back Genghis’ poisoning, and taken the view that Genghis Khan was born in the 1180s rather than 1160s, as no specific date is given. Nevertheless, I really liked Lords of the Bow. It has all the usual expectations of a novel in this genre – it is fast paced, the pages flow continuously with lots of action and suspense, the battles are intricately laid out and described in all the hallmarks of a Bernard Cornwell, and it tells a good yet simple story very well. But I also like that sort of thing anyway. I read to be entertained and I was entertained by this. This is an enjoyable, easy and simple read made better by the excellent character development of one of histories most brilliant minds. Highly recommended if you are a fan of this sort of story, if not, you might want to try Wolf of the Plains first.