Sunday, August 26, 2012

If Conn Iggulden weren't already married, I'd be badgering him with twenty letters a day, asking him to marry me.

5 out of 5 stars

With this, the fourth entry in Conn Iggulden's masterful series on Genghis Khan, the story has become even larger than before. Though Iggulden tried to avoid the, as he called it, “Russian novel syndrom” by introducing a new character on every single page, there are still enough new faces to keep things interesting. And even though the occasional character disappears and seems to have been forgotten, don't worry, you won't miss them for long, once you find yourself swept away by the action and drama of the other storylines.

I remember in World History, when we briefly learned about the “Mongol horde,” seeing those maps that had a big red splotch over the central Asian continent which tapered down to an arrow and that arrow swept over eastern Europe, pointing directly at western Europe. The teacher (and the textbook) droned on about how the Mongols thundered out of Asia and took Russia by surprise, knocking that country and its armies flat before going on to rape, pillage, and destroy cities in Romania, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Eastern Prussia, and Croatia. Just as the horde was ready to invade Italy, the Mongols returned home, leaving only smoldering rubble and dazed but lucky survivors in its wake. Yet that information never really penetrated my imagination. I could see how close the Mongols came to taking over the known world, but I never comprehended the actual meaning behind that close-call. Not until I read this novel and saw this campaign of destruction through the vivid writing of Iggulden. This army of warriors, with their never-before-seen tactics and mobile units, if they hadn't returned to Asia, could have taken over the world. Think about that for a moment. No renaissance, not as we know it; no Tudor dynasty, no Elizabethan era; no Ferdinand and Isabella. The ships that traveled to America might not have been headed by Christopher Columbus. We could conceivably be speaking Mongolian or Chinese right now rather than English. The Mongols were that successful. Empire of Silver brings that success to life in the most sensory, dramatic, and terrifying way.

The novel begins three years after Genghis's death and his son, Ogedai, is the heir to the empire Genghis built. But he's not Khan, not yet. He's put off the coronation ceremony in order to build his capital city, Karakorum, an achievement of which his father would've never even conceived and a project which many see as pure foolishness. Unfortunately, Ogedai's delay makes his ambitious brother, Chagatai, bold. His challenge to Ogedai's position reveals a terrible secret Ogedai has been carrying for years: his heart is fatally weak and has been for years. He suffers silently through the twinges and pains in his chest, medicating himself with gallons of wine and the dangerous powder of the foxglove. This revelation adds an air of desperation to the actions of all the brothers, none more so than Ogedai as he broadens the reach of Genghis's legacy by sending out armies into southern China and across the vast expanse of Russia's landscape to the formerly impenetrable heart of Europe.

As with all of Iggulden's novels in the Genghis series, this one is no less action-packed, no less dramatic, no less heart-pounding or pulse-racing. More than any other historical fiction novelist I've read, Iggulden excels at placing us right in the midst of battlefield action. The movements and tactics of the armies, the speed and immediacy of battles, the mud and sweat, fear and blood, the reality of war and death is expressed on the page with such breathtaking skill the reader feels his heart rate quicken and his palms moisten. I cannot stress just how amazing this ability is, both from a reading and a writing standpoint. Yet this kind of kinetic writing doesn't come at a sacrifice to the rest. Far from it. Iggulden has the ability to place the reader into the minds of his characters, allowing us to see their motivations and urges, from the dramatic and sinister, to the quiet moments of family interactions or the wandering thoughts of someone who is bored. Even something as simple as a character suffering from saddle sores is conveyed in an almost poetic manner.

Bottom line, this series started at the top and has maintained its stellar qualities through each succeeding entry. There's been no sophomore slump, no weak link in the chain. Each novel is stellar and if they could be read as stand-alones, I'd recommend picking this one up today. But you'd be missing out on so much, so, please, start at the beginning; pick up Genghis: Birth of an Empire, continue on through Genghis: Lords of the Bow and Genghis: Bones of the Hills before picking up Khan: Empire of Silver (so you can finish with Conqueror). Read them. Savor them. Once you start, I promise you won't want to stop. As the Yorkshire Evening Post put it: “Empire of Silver serves as confirmation that Iggulden's majestic series has developed into an historical fiction master class.” Amen.

Read August 14-23, 2012
Reviewed August 27, 2012        

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