“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.

8/10

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