Friday, August 13, 2010

Wolf of the Plains

If Bernard Cornwell is considered the King of the burgeoning historical fiction genre aimed at a male audience, then rising star Conn Iggulden could be thought of as the Prince of it.

After cutting his teeth with the Roman themed Emperor series (still in progress) about Julius Caesar, Iggulden decided to move away from the well mined Roman, English and European histories and instead focussed on the greatest conqueror the world has ever seen: Genghis Khan.

Wolf of the Plains is the first in a planned 6 book series about the Mongol Empire (the first 4 books are out in print). The first book covers the early life of Temujin; the Mongol tribesman who would be known to the world as Genghis Khan.

Temujin was the 3rd son of the Yesugei, the khan of a tribe that called themselves the Wolves. The early parts of Temujin's life are relatively well known, how the tribe cast him and his family out after the death of his father, and that they barely managed to survive, how he was later captured and tortured by a tribe (in the book it is the Wolves) escaped and eventually united the tribes, before going on to conquer China.

Wolf of the Plains fills in the gaps, making the largely unknown Yesugei and his strong willed wife (Genghis' mother) Hoelun into real people, and explaining how Temujin became the warrior he was, and what motivated him. Iggulden does play a little with historical fact, but most, if not all, historical fiction authors do that to varying degrees, the main omission here is Temujin's eldest brother, and Iggulden explains in the author's notes why he neglected to even mention the man. When reading a fiction book about a well known historical figure it's hard to build up any real sense of tension, because the reader is often aware of how events unfolded. In Wolf of the Plains Iggulden sometimes focusses on characters less well known to the general public. Temujin's wife; Borte, his younger brothers; Khasar, Kachiun and Temuge or the Naiman swordsmith, and one of Temujin's mentors, later leading general; Arslan. These characters became real and gave the novel the tension it needed, because I was unaware of them or their personal histories. The book ends with Temujin having become the khan of 3 tribes, explaining his plans to unite all the nomadic, warlike tribes of the Asian steppes and intending to attack the Chin empire, taking the title and name of Genghis Khan.

It was an enjoyable, informative and gripping read, for me the pages and the time flew by as I immersed myself in the story. Iggulden writes exciting, realistic and enhtralling fight scenes, he is an atmospheric writer, I could feel the icy wind sweeping off the steppes and see the Mongol riders racing across the plains.

One small quibble was the character of Temuge, and this may be a personal thing. He's the youngest of the brothers, also the smallest and the weakest, while he can never hope to match his older siblings with a bow or on horseback, the writer indicated that he may have or would develop talents in other areas, but never quite followed through, and this for me was frustrating. It may be resolved more satisfactorily in the sequels: Lords of the Bow. I'm sure I'll find out because I do intend to read Lords of the Bow.

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