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Book Commentary/Review – Conqueror: A Novel of Kublai Khan by Conn Iggulden February 25, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, books, Conn Iggulden, Conqueror: A Novel of Kublai Khan, historical fiction, Hulegu Khan, Mongols.
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Conqueror is the final novel of Conn Iggulden’s series about the Genghis Khan dynasty. As with the previous eight novels of the series, Iggulden delivers an energizing combination of history and entertainment as he takes us to the apex of Mongol domination of a huge portion of Eurasia during the 13th century. The title tells us the focus will be on Kublai as opposed to other members of the third generation of the Genghis Khan dynasty, and Kublai Khan definitely emerges as the protagonist in this book. But there is more to this book than the story of Kublai Khan.

Conqueror breaks out neatly into three parts, two succession controversies surrounding Kublai Khan’s fight against the Sung Dynasty in China. The first succession controversy involves Kublai Khan’s brother Mongke against his cousin Guyuk. Kublai is not the unambiguous protagonist at this point. He is the scholarly Genghis Khan grandson, under Chinese influence, with appreciation for cities and advanced civilization not within the understanding of his grandfather, and not shared by many in the ruling elite of his family. He seems a very unlikely warrior, or future Great Khan. His mother, Sorhatani, one of the truly remarkable women of the Middle Ages (Iggulden comments in his historical note at the end that she merits a book of her own—I would love to read that book), works in the background of events to involve the future Kublai Khan in a huge personal risk on behalf of his brother Mongke. He completes his arduous task, essential to the resolution of this succession conflict.

The second involves Kublai the scholar transitioning to Kublai the warrior. The new Great Khan undertakes unfinished business for the Genghis Khan dynasty. After all, they’re supposed to conquer the world. “All lands belong to us.” Kublai is sent to China to complete the conquest of millions of Chinese. At first, he seems uneasy in the role. He is tolerated by the generals assigned to him, but they show little apparent respect for the young man perceived as bookish, barely even Mongol. Through battles against larger armies, through adverse conditions, Kublai gradually earns the respect of his generals. But on the verge of victory over the Sung, news comes that the new Great Khan has died. Kublai declares himself Great Khan while on Chinese soil, believing he is next in line to be Great Khan, but not wanting to leave China on the verge of defeating the Sung. What Kublai does not know is that his brother Arik-Boke, in charge of the area around the Mongol capital, has declared himself Great Khan. This triggers a new succession battle, one Kublai is right in the middle of as the unambiguous protagonist.

The third part involves Kublai’s battle with Arik-Boke for the Great Khan position. Odds appear to be against Kublai. He has to return from China to take on a larger army. Kublai’s development as a warrior will be tested, but there’s no doubt that the Kublai returning home from China is a different person, still with the scholarly influence, but submerged within the warrior legacy of the Genghis Khan dynasty. Kublai the scholar becomes Kublai Khan at the end of this conflict, with a satisfying resolution to the conflict after a few suspense points.

Conn Iggulden has a talent for telling epic tales, for taking history and energizing it into compelling stories populated by characters we care about. This series-ending book maintains the quality of all the Genghis Khan novels.


Personal Note: As I mentioned, this is Kublai Khan’s novel. Hulegu Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson who becomes “Il-Khan” of the area around what is now Iran, is a supporting player with a minor role. Conqueror summarizes Hulegu’s activities during this period to simplify the story, focused on Kublai. Iggulden mentions Hulegu’s defeat by Muslims in the Middle East, the defeat of Hulegu’s Christian general. In my upcoming novel, The Sultan and the Khan, I tell the story of that conflict with the focus on Hulegu, his Christian general, and Baybars, the “mamluk”/slave-soldier who will later become a key sultan in the emerging Mamuk Dynasty, a dynasty that would rule huge areas of the Middle East from Egypt for over two hundred years. Christianity mixes in this conflict in strange and exotic ways as is dramatized throughout the story. The Sultan and the Khan involves a fictional Christian adventurer from Baghdad and a fictional Muslim scholar who confronts the changing circumstances at a nearly apocalyptic time for his faith and the world he has known. Anyone interested in The Sultan and the Khan should keep in touch—The Sultan and the Khan is completed and details will be provided about its availability as they develop.