Thursday, July 26, 2012

Review: Conqueror by Conn Iggulden

This fifth novel in Conn Iggulden's series covering the rise to power and reigns of Genghis Khan and his descendants is once more breathtaking in its scope and alive with vibrant characters who slash their way across Asia in their struggle to become the Great Khan of the Mongol people.   

As the novel opens, Güyük, eldest son of Genghis Khan's third son, Ogedei, has assumed the throne after his father dies of a heart ailment.  But, Güyük is suspicious of Prince Batu, son of Ghengis' eldest son Jochi, because Batu did not attend the great kurultai or tribal gathering where tribal leaders confirm the choice of the new khan and swear an oath of loyalty to him.  Batu rules remnants of the famous Golden Horde that swept through Russia initially under the leadership of the famed warlord Subutai and now controls the lands west of the Volga River.

Historically, this is accurate as far as it goes.  Batu claimed he could not attend the kurultai when first invited by Ogedei's widow and ruling regent, Toregene, and Batu's failure to obey the summons delayed the succession for several years.  But eventually, in 1246 CE, Güyük was proclaimed Great Khan at a ceremony attended by Batu's brothers, who represented the Jochid branch of the family.  But Güyük would have been painfully aware of Batu's personal popularity as Batu was called "agha" (or elder brother in Mongolian) by the people and considered the most respected prince in the Empire so certainly the attendance of substitutes would have been duly noted.

Friction between the two actually dates back to the Mongol invasion of Europe.  The Great Khan Ogedei ordered Batu to conquer the western nations at a kurultai in 1235 CE and was assigned an army of over 130,000 men.  He was joined by the other Mongol princes including Güyük.  After three brutal years of fighting, including the devastation of 14 Rus cities, a victory banquet was held where Batu was ridiculed by Güyük, apparently disapproving of Batu's battle strategies, and calling him "an old woman with a beard".  Infuriated, Batu reported Güyük's behavior to the Great Khan who called Güyük back to Mongolia for a reprimand.

In the novel, once Güyük was named Great Khan, he took his father's warriors and began to march west under a pretext of training exercises, with the actual goal of personally wresting Batu's khanate away from him.  Batu is warned of Güyük's intentions by Sorghaghtani, widow of Genghis Khan's younger brother Tolui and mother of Kublai.  In the novel (Spoiler alert) Kublai disguises himself as a Yam rider, the Mongolian version of the Pony Express, and embarks on a strenuous dash across the continent to warn Batu who clandestinely intercepts Güyük while the Great Khan is out hunting with only a body slave in attendance.
Historically, Güyük is said to have died suddenly from natural causes but the thrilling encounter between Güyük and Batu theoretically could have occurred.

Kublai's involvement is also imagined although Sorghaghtani did warn Batu and probably would have used the Yam messenger system and would have needed to find a messenger that would not have been loyal to the new Khan.  Who better than one of her own sons?

Meanwhile, Kublai's older brother, Mongke, is with Güyük's entourage.  Mongke orders the army to return the Khan's body to the Mongolian capital where a kurultai is held following the funeral and Mongke is proclaimed the new Khan.  After Mongke assumes the throne, he immediately begins a purge of the Ogedeid clan including the execution of the much revered Toregene, widow of Ogedei Khan and mother of Güyük.
This purge is quite probable although history merely records that the Ogedeid and Chagataid clans were punished for their lack of support for Mongke's ascension to the throne.  The death of Toregene, who has been portrayed sympathetically in  Iggulden's previous novel, "Empire of Silver", lends a dark aspect to the rule of Mongke which is not supported by the historical record although Toregene was also not as ethically unassailable as she was portrayed either.

Historically, Ogedei named a son by another wife, Kochu, as his successor. When that son died unexpectedly on a campaign in China, Ogedei named Kochu's son, Siremun, as his successor.   Toregene was determined, though, that Güyük would be Khan.  When Ogedei died and Toregene was named regent until a kurultai could be held to confirm a new Khan, Toregene delayed the kurultai until Güyük garnered enough support for a successful bid.  (Evidently, Batu was not the only one trying to delay the naming of a new Khan).

However, the relationship between mother and son did not last after Güyük ascended the throne.  Toregene had promoted a Tajik or Persian woman named Fatima to a high post in the imperial administration and she and Toregene had become close friends.  When Güyük's brother, Koden, became ill he accused Fatima of witchcraft.  Güyük demanded that the woman be turned over for execution.  His mother, Toregene, refused and threatened suicide if he tried to harm the woman.  Güyük's men seized Fatima anyway and put her to death then purged his mother's other supporters in the imperial household.  Toregene herself died under unexplained circumstances about 18 months later.  Therefore, she was presumably already dead by the time
Mongke ascended the throne although the timing would have been close.

But, let's return to Iggulden's story.

Mongke is a Mongol warrior of the old school in sharp contrast to Kublai who has pursued an education in Chinese philosophy and cultural pursuits.  When Mongke assumes the throne he purges the Mongolian court of all Chinese officials and philosophers and orders Kublai to China to expand the empire by conquering the Song.  He also asks Kublai to swear he will forsake his Chinese books and ways and learn the skills of a warrior and general.  He sends with him a son of the famous warlord Subutai named Uryankhadai.  The subsequent battles require all of the cunning and expert military strategy Kublai and Uryankhadai can devise to defeat Song armies often with as much as a 10 to 1 numerical advantage over the Mongolian forces.  But Kublai is often cut off from the Mongolian homeland and little information trickles back to Mongke Khan.  Mongke becomes suspicious and decides his younger brother may need some assistance and sets out with a relief force.

On the way, an Ismaili assassin from the Fatimid Empire that was  attacked and sacked by Mongke's younger brother Hulagu, ends Mongke's reign.

Historically, there are various conflicting accounts about Mongke's death.  Most scholars have settled upon reports that he died of dysentery or cholera while besieging a city.  However, there are accounts that at one point the Ismaili-Hashashin's imam Alaud-Din dispatched hundreds of assassins to kill Mongke in his palace. So Iggulden's use of this scenario is certainly plausible.

Kublai is still fighting the Song and senses he is close to total victory so when he finally receives a summons to a kurultai in Karakorum to choose a successor to the Khan, he ignores it.  But his younger brother, Ariq Böke, does not wait and has himself declared Khan.  In the meantime, after a horrendous battle and great Mongolian victory, Kublai is declared Khan by his troops setting the stage for an epic succession struggle that served as the climax for the book.

One last historical note.  At the end of the novel, Ariq Böke is executed.  Kublai actually pardoned Ariq Böke although he did have many of Ariq Böke's companions executed.

According to scholar David Morgan, "Ariq Böke can be seen as representing an influential school of thought among the Mongols, which Kublai through his actions and attitudes after 1260 opposed. Some Mongols felt there was a dangerous drift towards softness, typified in those like Kublai who thought there was something to be said for settled civilization and for the Chinese way of life."

Once more Conn Iggulden succeeded in bringing the vibrant Mongol culture to life in a way that leaves you, at times, breathless.  I would love another installment that explores the world Kublai envisioned compared to the legacy he actually left behind.  Are you listening Mr. Iggulden?

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