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on 18 September 2009
The third book in the Conqueror series is again first rate historical fiction though considering quite how impressive the first two were, this is the weakest offering. Still, that is only because Wolf of the Plains and Lords of the Bow were quite so impressive that Bones of the Hills is a poorer relation. In its own right, the concluding part of the tale of Temujin is a gripping, fast paced, and emotionally involved epic.
Genghis Khan's incursion into the settled world had seen China defeated but not eliminated. This book charts the events that took place when his eyes were cast west and the mighty Persian society of Khorosan. I'll state up front that I had real difficulty with Iggulden's continued description of these as an Arab people. Historical fiction should not make such obvious mistakes. Right from the start with the description of Pashtuns as being Arab, this was a problem. I would have thought given the current western interest in the Afghan region, this was easy to spot as an error and why an editor did not fix this is beyond me. Even the Shah of Khwarazem himself was not an Arab in reality.
With this unnecessary faux pas in mind, Bones of the Hills is still awesome. The battle scenes are often a little reminiscent of those from Lords of the Bow but what is excellent is the way Iggulden adapts the conflicts to meet the Shah's tighter discipline and more advanced tactics. The Mongols had conquered at will before but now they faced up to some of the mightiest armies in the world and to Iggulden's credit he does not portray his characters as all-conquering heroes and at times they are lost. Iggulden recognises the skill of the Persians - after all these were the people who had kept an empire alive right next to the most powerful nation on Earth in the Abbasid Caliphate - and Ala-ud-Din and Jalal-ud-Din are given as much character as many of the Mongols are themselves.
The battlefields are so different from those of the Orient, and their features are described effectively. The winding path up to the stronghold of the Old Man of the Mountains is a world away from the plains the first battles of Wolf took place on and Iggulden's battles reflect those differences.
Despite this being the defining campaign of Genghis Khan's lifetime, the book is really about Genghis as a father. The loyalty of Jalal-ud-Din to his father Ala-ud-Din is a clear and stark contrast to the relationship between Genghis and his eldest son Jochi. Iggulden portrays Jochi as a hugely sympathetic character, a man who was as strong and with more potential even than his own father but who was denied the ability to take up his father's place because Genghis believed Jochi to be illegitimate. The conflict between father and son is seldom exercised in physical form but it is the most cruel and heart rending element of the entire series.
In reality it is Ogedei who succeeds Temujin as the head of the Mongol forces and Iggulden gives the second son Chagatai short shrift. Chagatai went on to found a reasonable dynasty of his own so perhaps Iggulden's character portrayal is a little too unsympathetic. Other characters though are extraordinary. The development of Tsubodai into the foremost general of his age, one of the few generals that history recognises in spite of a great leader above him, Tsubodai's generalship skills are drawn by Iggulden alongside a person who understands the motives and expectations of his enemy. This skill is seen elsewhere in the series but not in a person granted dignity and strength. This is the eastern view of wisdom and Iggulden reflects it brilliantly. The western view of the wormtongued villain is not the only portrayal of cunning in history. Tsubodai's character reflects the symbol of intelligence and ruthlessness in a man of great honour. This character is a real treasure to read.
Ultimately though this is only a good, not a great book. It is torn between the descriptions of the battles against the Shah and the internal battles bewteen father and son. Though the link in the relationship between the Shah and his first born and the Khan and his first born underlie much of the book, the focus is not all that effective. The battle against the Hashashins for instance, the quelling of rebellion and the destruction that took place in Afghanistan that still impacts today are underplayed far too much. The internal politics were superb in books 1 and 2 but book 3 loses its way marginally.
The role of women and the challenges of leadership are again excellently exposed in Bones. The death of Temulun comes in a raid by the Khwarazem against a camp of women and children and this is rightly cast as a terrible act though it is just one of many in the world of the Conqueror series. As a leader, Genghis has to make horrific decisiosn and he does not shy away from them. The survival of his nation is at stake against a formidable foe and these decisions are reflected in the deaths of named characters whose lives are almost discarded by the decisions Genghis makes for the good of the wider community. This plays into Iggulden's understanding of the people and the times.
Despite the shortcomings of the book, this is still terrific historical fiction because it generates emotional attachments to the characters involved. This is not some faceless horde of monsters, it is a group of people who have to make tough decisions and who forge relationships with one another. The series as a whole is magnificent and it is because of Iggulden's fantastic blending of realistic people with the historical events of the times. As a whole, this series is a must read for anyone who enjoys historical fiction.