Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Conqueror by Conn Iggulden
Conqueror is the 5th and final book of Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series, which covers the Mongol Empire from the birth of Genghis Khan up until the reign of his grandson; Kublai.
Guyuk Khan, Genghis’ grandson through Ogedai, is khan when the book opens. Guyuk was not a strong leader, and the book intimates that the empire may have fractured and descended into civil war had he not died when he did. Guyuk’s death brings his cousin; Mongke, older brother of Kublai, to the throne, and that is where the story really starts.
While in the previous book it was implied that Kublai and Mongke’s mother; Sorhatani, really wanted the throne to go to Kublai, she was happy for any of her sons to ascend to power, so accedes to Mongke’s leadership.
Mongke is a warrior first and foremost, and a proud Mongol, this leads him to drive all of the Chin scholars and scribes from the capital of Karakorum, and may also provide some of the conflict between he and Kublai, as the younger brother is scholarly and adopts many Chin customs and manner of dress. Mongke then gives his brothers some measure of power, and in the cases of Hulegu and Kublai sends them away from the Mongol homeland, so as to lessen the chances of conflict, he only keeps the youngest brother Arik-Boke, close.
From this point on the story really divides into 2 separate stories. Mongke’s part is considerably lessened and the book focuses on Hulegu and Kublai. The warlike Hulegu finishes what his grandfather started by extending Mongol control into the middle east, even taking and sacking Baghdad. The khanate Hulegu established in what is now Iraq lasted until 1338 ending with the death of his great great great grandson Muhammad Khan.
While Hulegu is occupied in the middle east, Kublai goes into China to overthrow the rulers of the Sung territories. Genghis had also tried to take over the Sung territories in China, but had died before being able to do so. Kublai’s scholarly ways were seen as a weakness by his brothers, but they along with wise counsel from the Buddhist monk Yao Shu and generals like Uriang-Khadai (in reality the son of the great general Tsubodai, but not mentioned as such for narrative reasons in Conqueror), prove a great strength during the campaign. Unfortunately Mongke’s untimely death and a grab for power by Arik-Boke, cut Kublai’s largely successful campaign short.
I knew that Kublai Khan would eventually become the Khan, as it’s been largely recorded in history, and he is seen as one of China’s great rulers, reigning for over 33 years, and at the height of his powers the empire covered one fifth of the world’s inhabited lands. What I was unaware of before reading the Conqueror series was that there were 3 khans in between Genghis and Kublai. I had always thought that power passed seamlessly from Genghis to his grandson. I was also unaware that Kublai was himself a warrior and general when he was younger, before Mongke died, and he had to wrest power from his younger brother to prevent a civil war and extend the empire as much as he did.
Throughout the series Conn Iggulden has filled in the many blanks surrounding the Mongol Empire to create a fast moving, fascinating picture of an ingenious, although sometimes brutal people. The differences between the various tribes of the Mongols that made up the Golden Horde and would rule the eastern world were often mirrored in the relationships between Genghis and his sons and then later his grandchildren. Women too played a part in these books. Genghis’ mother Hoelun, played a big role in Wolf of the Plains, as did his first wife; Borte. The mother of Kublai; Sorhatani, put the wheels in motion for her son’s ascension to the throne in Empire of Silver and in Conqueror and Kublai’s wife; Chabi, is a strong lady who has significant influence over her husband.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed expanding my knowledge of the Mongols through this series, although at times Iggulden does play a little fast and loose with history for reasons of not spoiling a good story, and he puts in a few too many repetitive battle scenes for my liking. If you want your history entertaining and don’t mind not being pedantically accurate in every detail then the Conqueror series is a good look at a part of history not often covered by many of the historical novelists around today.