“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.