Top critical review
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A very good but very problematic read
on 10 November 2011
If you are a fan of Conn Inggulden, then this book should probably get four stars. I am not, after having read all of his books and despite all his qualities.
I agree with other reviewers: he is a great story teller. This book is superbly written, at least most of the time, although I got a bit annoyed when he kept switching scenes every 3-5 pages because it felt like a cheap and unecessary ploy to build up suspense where no such build up was needed. He is also very good at describing the personality of his characters but here again, he sometimes goes a bit overboard and overdoes it. A couple of examples: Kubilaï portrayed as a scholar whose personality is "transformed" into a hard warrior. Somewhat exagerated when you know that Mongols in general, and the descendants of Gengis in particular, learnt to ride, shoot a bow and use a sword and lance almost as soon as they started to walk! Another example is Alghu, turned into some kind of trembling coward, which he wasn't at all in reality. He in fact sided with Arik-Boke, then changed sides and defeated Alandar in battle. Another example is Güyuk Khan, of which we know little in reality, and who is portrayed as some kind of sadist.
However, my main problem is that this book (and all of Conn's other books) is that it is simply NOT historical fiction. Rather, it is FICTION built around a rather loose historical background with which the author takes as many liberties as he pleases, without even disclosing half of them in his so-called "historical note". Here are a few examples, but there are many others:
- did you know that Batu, far from having a single tuman when Güyuk made his bid for power was in fact his most powerful opponent? He had with him part of the battle-hardened army that had swept into Europe with Subodaï, Jebe and all of the other descendants of Genghis. He also had thousands of warriors from the nomad people that they had just conquered (Volga Bulgars, Cumans etc...)?
- did you know, that contrary to what Conn Inggulden mentions, Batu was NOT the first-born of the first born (son of Jochi)? He had an elder brother who was the one who became paramount Khan in the West when Genghis died and its only afterward his brother's death (during Ogodaï's reign) that he took over this position.
- did you know that BATU died in 1255, so that he NEVER sided with Kubilaï, simply because he was dead five years before the latter made his bid for supreme power? In fact, Batu's successor, his younger brother Berke, converted to Islam, allied himself with the Mamluks of Egypt, and attacked Hülegu from the North through the Derbend pass, effectively preventing him from taking an active part in the civil war between his two other surviving brothers
- did you know that Hülegu sided with Kübilai straight away, was never rescued by Kübilai top general (who was NOT the son of Subodaï) in the middle of a battle and that Hülegu had no qualms at all in going against Arik-Börke?
- did you know that the conflict between Arik-Börke and Kübilai last some 4 years (1260-1264) and was ended when the former surrendered to the latter, after Alghu had joined Kübilai, who held Northern China, and beaten Arik-Börke
- I won't even discuss Kübilai's ride to Batu as a (relatively) young man or even his crossing of central Asia when fighting against Arik-Boke: both are fabrications and never happened, nor did the Assasins attempt to kill Hülegu and successfull attempt in killing Mongke. One last thing: the death of Güyul is a bit of a mystery, as Conn mentions. Conn chose to have him killed by Batu in single combat: how very dramatic! He could just as well have died of dysentry, as Mongke when besieging one of the Song's city...
So, fiction, yes. A gripping read and a superbly written book, certainly. But historic, it is certainly not and contrary to Bernard Cornwell, for instance...