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“Bones of the Hills,” by Conn Iggulden

3 Jul

“Bones of the Hills,” by Conn Iggulden (540p)

Bones of the Hills is the third and final novel in Conn Iggulden’s trilogy of the life of Genghis Khan and the formation of the Mongol Empire. Depicting the conquest of Central Asia and the war against the Khwarezm-Shah Empire, it also tells the story of Genghis’ later life as Great Khan and the looming succession crisis facing the Mongols once Genghis is gone between his three ambitious sons.

After the conquest of Yenking (see Lords of the Bow here), Genghis Khan had sent his three eldest sons Jochi, Chagatai and Ogedai on scouting and conquering missions to lands far from the ancestral Mongol homeland to practice and hone their skills. Jochi had travelled to Russia under the tutelage of Tsubodai, Ogedai had ventured south in pursuit of the Chinese Emperor to Kaifeng with his uncle Khasar, while Chagati had accompanied Jelme to Goryeo (modern Korea) in search of spoils, tribute and submission from the ruling Wang Dynasty. But now Genghis was calling them back to the fold of his Mongol nation, the great horde, for a coming war.

The Arab lands to the south had greatly affronted Genghis by refusing his envoys and offers of trade, brutally killing his ambassadors and scouts and returning their heads. Genghis, taking great offence and hurt to seeing his wishes challenged, declares war on the leader of these unknown people, Shah Muhammad II of Khwarezm and plans to take almost his entire nation south-west to the desert and mountains with a force 200,000 strong. In rapid succession Genghis, his brothers and sons, and generals destroy Shah Muhammad’s armies and cities with a great victory outside Otrar, reducing the Khwarezm army to ruins. Genghis turns his vengeance on Otrar itself, destroying the city and forever reducing it to ruin. He sacked and destroyed Merv and Urgench and conquered Burhkara and the great city of Samarkand with ease. Only the exiled princes of the deceased Shah, chased beyond the Caspian Sea, remained to challenge Genghis’ control over the Khwarezm Empire. He also had to deal with threats on his life by fanatical Shia Muslim assassins and rode to batter their secret fortresses deep in the Persian mountains, destroying their order for good. Returning to Samarkand, Genghis sat idle with his people and began to contemplate the final years of his life. Did he turn to civilisation and cities and keep his people in one place or return to the nomadic existence they had known all their lives? Genghis was also faced with the succession as he grew older. He had groomed Chagatai for the role all his life and spurned Jochi, the eldest son, but their continued rivalry and fighting amongst the nation humiliated Genghis and his reputation, and so he named Ogedai as his successor and swore his family and people to follow Ogedai once Genghis was gone.

Rebellion soon surfaced. The son of the dead Shah, Jelaudin, had returned with an army travelling north from the southern reaches of the Khwarezm Empire and beyond, from India and the Afghan lands. Despite sending Kachiun and Jelme, Jelaudin inflicted the first crushing defeat on Genghis Khan’s Mongols in history, forcing Genghis to take the field himself. Genghis was without Tsubodai, though, as the legendary general had been sent north (to somewhere in Siberia) to retrieve Jochi after the khan’s son had refused to return to camp following a scouting mission, disobeying Genghis and forcing Tsubodai into the heart wrenching (at least for him) decision to execute him. Despite Tsubodai’s absence Genghis routed the last Arab army on the banks of the Indus, destroying the force completely even if Jelaudin escaped. His last tasks in the Arab lands was to exact revenge on the rebellious cities that had gone against him and he turned Herat and Balkh into virtual ghost towns.

With Samarkand and Bukhara already in his power he turned east and headed for home with one more war to fight as the Xi Xia kingdom had rebelled against the Mongols, thinking them to be too far stretched to keep power. Genghis headed east but did not make it – he fell from his horse and soon died, leaving the Mongol nation to his son Ogedai with brothers Khasar and Kachiun and Tsubodai, Jebe and Jelme to rule. Genghis’ final wish was fulfilled as his family exacted revenge on the Xi Xia kingdoms, utterly destroying them with Ogedai at the head of a new Mongol nation.

You know when you are really looking forward to something and when you finally get it, it wasn’t quite as good as you were hoping? That’s sort of how I feel about Bones of the Hills. Don’t get me wrong, it was quite a good novel. Very good, in fact. I had been eagerly anticipating the mass market paperback release since the gripping finish of Lords of the Bow last year and perhaps that had something to do with it, but I just felt it wasn’t nearly as good as I hoping it to be. This is mainly because certain parts of it dragged, particularly in a lot of the sections devoted to Jelaudin and the dying Shah on the run from the Mongols. Too often I felt Iggulden switched point of view to them for an irrelevant passage that did not need to be there, and I felt that could have been done without. The middle parts of the novel rather lacked some direction as well and it was a bit of a situation where I thought the characters were all standing around waiting to get into the next part, and a lot of useless passages could have probably been done without to keep the pace moving at the sort of speed I have grown used to when reading Iggulden. It is more or less the only section of the trilogy I have actually disliked.

The dynamics of the novel changed quite a lot as well. Previously, Genghis’ brothers Kachiun and Khasar were integral to the story, but they were largely anonymous for the most part in Bones of the Hills, only forming peripheries to the story and then only becoming important again right towards the end. This was something I didn’t like because I always enjoyed Khasar as a character, Iggulden depicted him quite differently from his infinitely more serious brothers. He lightened the mood and allowed the reader a respite from the brutality and ruthlessness of Genghis, and I felt the novel suffered with him absent. Genghis himself dominates most of the narrative, as expected, and Iggulden has certainly captured the many contradictions of this man to create the image of a truly ruthless military mastermind but also genial family man true to his roots as a Mongol. The shift away from his brothers to the others in the nation in the narrative continued with Jochi being such a focal point for most of the novel. Iggulden is favourable to Jochi, presenting him as a brilliant military mind and charismatic general, and again went to great lengths to create the intolerable way Genghis treated his first son. Their relationship is quite interesting and develops a lot early, first going from grudging tolerance and then to open hostility when Jochi finally rebelled. Jochi is such an interesting character and is one of the most developed in the trilogy and while I missed Khasar I enjoyed Jochi’s presence, and I don’t think there are many people who couldn’t feel sympathy for Jochi with the way Genghis treated him throughout his life.

I have enjoyed this trilogy a lot. Iggulden’s style is easy to appreciate and follow – he moves at a fast pace, going from battle to battle and creating his world in effortless strides that produces a proper page turner. It is easy to get lost in this series and demolish several dozen pages in one sitting. I didn’t think he ended it right, though, and don’t think Bones of the Hills is the best of the three, but on the whole it would be hard to say I was overly disappointed because it was a good novel, just not as a good as the one that came before it because of that rather dreary middle section. To complete the trilogy it is a must read and caps off the life of Genghis Khan perfectly. At no point do you ever lose sight that this man was the scared little boy left alone by the tribes when his father was murdered, even if he was then the most powerful man in the world. Iggulden has captured the life and spirit and personality of one of history’s most complex and interesting figures superbly and done so in a way that makes you fly through the pages and want to read more, and for that I recommend it to anyone if they are captivated by military adventure historical novels. I am, that’s why I can’t wait for the second trilogy and the rest of the life of Ogedai Khan.



“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.


“Wolf of the Plains,” by Conn Iggulden

12 Sep

“Wolf of the Plains,” by Conn Iggulden (560p)

Wolf of the Plains (Genghis: Birth of an Empire in the US) is the first part of a planned six-part series by British author Conn Iggulden depicting the rise and fall of the Mongol Empire. This first instalment deals with the childhood of Temüjin, better known as Genghis Khan, before he became the infamous Great Khan of the Mongol peoples. Wolf of the Plains is also the first of the trilogy solely about Genghis, the remaining three in the series will focus on his descendents.

Temüjin and his four brothers – Bekhter (who is actually his half-brother), Khasar, Kaichun and Temüge – embark on a quest to retrieve two eagle hatchlings high on a hill as a gift for their father, the khan Yesegui. Temüjin’s childhood rivalry with his brother Bekhter is thoroughly explained by Iggulden in these opening passages, as his primary reason for capturing the eagle was to annoy Bekhter. Temüjin is soon disappointed when, after he had risked his life to capture the eagles, his father gives one of them to his bondsman Eeluk. He had been hoping to receive one himself. From there, Yesegui further disappoints his wayward second son by taking him to the camp of his mothers people, the Olkhun’ut, where he is to spend the next year of his life.

Temüjin’s fortunes then take a turn for the severe worse. His father is murdered by Tartar raiders on his way back to his own camp. Upon hearing of the news Temüjin races back to camp and prepares to assume the role of khan, despite only being about twelve at the time of Yesegui’s death. But someone else had plans of becoming khan and Temüjin and his family are betrayed by Eeluk and banished from the camp, left to fend for themselves in the deadly climate of the Mongolian steppe.

Thus begins the second part of Wolf of the Plains. Eeluk assumed Temüjin and his family would die in the first winter alone on the steppe, the freezing weather alone would be enough to see them off let alone the sparse food. But Temüjin and his brothers, with their mother helping, manage to make it through that winter. They then make it through five more and etch out a living as tribeless wanderers, but still they constantly live in fear of Eeluk returning to finish them off for once and all.

From there, the story heads towards its conclusion. Temüjin begins to morph into Genghis Khan as he tries to unite the Mongol tribes against their common enemies, the Tartars and the Chinese. Through force he takes the Olkun’ut, through political cunning he takes the Kerait from Togrul Khan and through his own thirst for revenge over Eeluk he takes his own tribe back. Wolf of the Plains ends with Temüjin proclaiming himself to be Genghis, Khan of Khans and the leader of all Mongols.

By no means is Wolf of the Plains faultless. Iggulden explains where he had taken liberties in the authors note at the end – for instance, in the novel Temüjin only spends a few days when captured by Eeluk but in reality it was several months – but mostly that is for the sake of the story and unless you are well read on Genghis Khan it goes unnoticed. Other historical inaccuracies are minor, although the exclusion of Jamuka, Temüjin’s childhood rival, is noticeable but his role is done by Bekhter.

It is not serious fiction either and should not be taken as such. It is simple, fun and entertaining. Iggulden’s style is similar to that of an action movie – Diehard will not win an Oscar, but it will keep you entertained the whole way through at any rate. Wolf of the Plains is the same. It is a very entertaining read and I flew through it. If you are after a good story with an interesting historical figure as the lead, and don’t mind a bit of blood and gore from time-to-time, then I heartily recommend this.