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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.

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2012 – Personal Notes: What I’m Offering This Year at this Blog, and Elsewhere January 1, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in Ayn Jalut, Baybars, books compared to movies, books into movies, fusion jazz, historical fiction, Hulegu Khan, Issa, Issa Legend, Mamluks, medieval period, Middle Ages, Mongols, movies based on books, mystic jazz, Richard the Lionheart, Richard Warren Field, Saladin, the crusades, The Swords of Faith, third crusade, writers.
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What to Expect at this Blog Over the Coming Year

  • Two continuing series: (1) The 820th anniversary posts commenting on key moments in the Third Crusade (the confrontation between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin during the late Twelfth Century) will continue up to October of this year when the series will end with a post commemorating the 820th anniversary of the end of the Third Crusade. Of course, this series springs from The Swords of Faith, my award-winning novel that tells the story of this event through the eyes of Richard the Lionheart, Saladin, and two fictional characters. (2) At the first of every month, I’ll offer a full-length selection from my Issa Music CD, just released this week. The music was inspired by the “Legend of Issa,” the story of Jesus making a journey to India while forming his spiritual vision. If true, this suggests a spiritual connection between East and West that goes back two thousand years. The music celebrates the idea of East blending harmoniously with West.
  • Books-Into-Movies will continue; these posts are among the most popular at my blog resulting in thousands of blog visits. I’ll look for films with a historical or big-themed angle based on a novel or non-fiction book (not a novelized movie). I’ll reach back for more classics, as I did last year with “Ben Hur.”
  • Music: Given my recent rediscovery of a passionate love for creating and playing music, I will continue offering comments on music at this blog. Some posts will discuss the poetry of lyrics like the posts about Jimi Hendrix and Yes selections. But I will expand this to comment on other musical topics. Expect some surprises here, one or two coming up soon! One topic I’ll explore will be the nature of music itself, and why humans seem almost universally to connect with it. I will be consulting help on that topic—I will comment on books addressing this subject from numerous different angles.
  • I will continue posting about physics and metaphysics as I did on August 30, 2011 and October 7, 2011.  The next post will refer to some recent reading so my reflections on this esoteric and intensely complex topic do not seem to come out of thin air!
  • And I expect to come out with some posts on completely new topics. The world is supposed to come to an end this December. I expect to survive this event and post the day after the end of the world. I look forward to many visits and comments from others who have also survived that day! We also do have an election coming up later this year in the United States. I may wade into those treacherous waters. I’ve been there before—just take a look at my Internet Column and my 1997 novel, The Election. Don’t expect me to follow any conventional approach, “left” or “right.” That’s what’s great about blogging… I’m free to set my own rules! 

*******

What to Expect from Me Creatively this Year

  • I have completed writing and revising (for now) The Sultan and Khan, my novel about one of the most neglected battles in world history, the battle between the Muslim Mamluks and the Mongol dynasty in September of 1260. I will work toward an announcement of when and where The Sultan and Khan will be available as details develop.
  • I’ll begin reading and research for the third novel of The Swords of Faith trilogy, The Ghosts of Baghdad. (I expect that to lead to some interesting blog posts.)
  • Look for news of some music performances this coming year as time permits me to schedule them.
  • I plan to produce a Christmas CD. I had been working on it when the end of the year caught up to me! But I have warned my family to expect to hear Christmas music during January and February as I build on the momentum I have developed late during 2011 and start building some tracks. 

*******

Happy New Year to everyone. May 2012 be a year of joy and fulfillment, a year of great expectations realized, of love experienced and shared for all. 

Previous “Personal Notes” Posts:

Other

Book Commentary/Review – Khan: Empire of Silver by Conn Iggulden March 9, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, books, Conn Iggulden, historical fiction, Khan: Empire of Silver, medieval period, Mongols, Ogedei Khan, Sorhatani, Uncategorized.
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Khan: Empire of Silver is Conn Iggulden’s fourth installment in his series of novels about Genghis Khan and his dynasty. As with the first three, this is a well-researched, fascinating telling of the Mongol conquests, years that had a profound effect on history, an effect that  arguably continues today. (My own novel, The Sultan and the Khan, soon to be available, chronicles the clash between forces commanded by Hulegu Khan and his generals, and the Mamluks, including future Sultan Baybars. The consequences of this clash certainly echo into the present-day.) Iggulden does not flinch from the Mongols’ ruthless savagery, their cold-blooded commitment to victory at any cost, with a brutal lack of compassion or basic human morality. Genghis Khan’s near genocidal disdain for the soft people in the cities remained alive and flourishing in the succeeding generations as Mongols swept through Russia and Eastern Europe to Poland and Hungary, unstoppable, and guaranteeing devastation to any hints of resistance.

In a sense, the book can be roughly divided into three unequal parts. Part one covers the succession conflict after the death of Genghis Khan. The conflict is between Genghis Khan’s second son Chagatai, and third son Ogedei, Genghis Khan’s choice to succeed himself. The factions face-off at the newly constructed capital city of Karakorum, with violent, all-or-nothing, high-stakes confrontations needed to resolve the issue. Part two covers the Mongol sweep westward after the new Great Khan confirms his position, a sweep that would forever profoundly change the history of Russia, and that would lead to eastern Europeans struggling to contest them, and western Europeans hoping they would be like an ocean wave dissipating momentum as it moves from its source. Part three, intertwined with part two, and just a sliver in length, is another succession controversy after the new Great Khan dies. We are left there— Conn Iggulden will certainly be offering another installment to this series!

One bizarre event, dramatized straight from a key source for this period, The Secret History of the Mongols, has Genghis Khan’s youngest son Tolui killing himself as a human sacrifice to somehow appease spiritual forces and prolong the life of his older brother, the newly confirmed Great Khan. The sacrifice seems to work, but not for long. Ironically, it will be Tolui’s sons who end up ruling—Monge and Kublai become Great Khans, and Hulegu becomes Il-Khan of a huge empire that will include Baghdad.

We also meet Sorhatani, Tolui’s widow, the mother of khans. This is a formidible woman in a man’s world, the Mongol equivalent of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a fun character to watch.

One technical issue I am raising—Iggulden does what folks in the business call “head-hopping.” He switches points-of-view, going into the internal musings of different characters constantly within a scene. My feeling about it? It’s a bit jarring, because I have been so emphatically advised against it and therefore trained to spot it. But I find myself smiling. If you can sell as many books as Conn Iggulden, if you have his following, you can “head-hop” all you like. No agent or editor will tell you otherwise! And I found no reduced enjoyment of the story because of it.

For readers who want an entertaining look at this fascinating, formative period of history, provided with close attention to the facts (and a comprehensive “Historical Note” at the end to point out any deviation taken by the author), Khan: Empire of Silver, is a must read. Conn Iggulden’s fascination with this story transfers into an exciting novel, vivid and energetic, with exotic characters and history-forming events depicted.

Khan: Empire of Silver

Khan: Empire of Silver

Genghis: Birth of an Empire

Genghis: Birth of an Empire

Genghis: Bones of the Hills

Genghis: Bones of the Hills

 

Genghis: Lords of the Bow

Genghis: Lords of the Bow

Some Personal Notes October 26, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in 1260, Ayn Jalut, historical fiction, Mamluks, medieval period, Mongols, Richard the Lionheart, Richard Warren Field, Saladin, the crusades, third crusade.
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Yes, sometimes a blog is used for some personal news. Well, writing news and personal news. I haven’t often used mine that way. But, I just recently posted “Opportunity in Adversity: A Personal Note,” and let’s face it, the Magic the Cat posts, and the late Marie post, are a personal indulgence. So, here’s a little Richard Warren Field news:

  • The The Swords of Faith has been chosen as a finalist by the USA Book News for Best Books of 2010 in the Historical Fiction Category. Thanks, folks over at USA Book News!
  • This week marks the completion of the first draft of The Sultan and the Khan, another epic-scope novel, the follow-up to The Swords of Faith. I have a lot of work to do on the revision, but the basic book is in place. Dawud, that little guy born to Pierre and Atiya in The Swords of Faith, is a seventy year old man in The Sultan and the Khan, and is a character link between the two books. He goes through a lot between the end of The Swords of Faith and the beginning of The Sultan and the Khan, trying to navigate the conflicts raging in the Eastern Mediterranean/Middle East. But this is nothing compared to what he will experience between early 1258 and late 1260. This time it’s not just Christian “crusaders” against Muslims. Mongols, Muslims and Christians mix in bizarre ways, leading to the historically crucial Battle of Ayn Jalut in September of 1260.
  • My laryngitis condition is much improved. I have gone from having no function of the left side of my voicebox to a “bowing” of the left vocal cords, meaning I have some function. I can carry a tune again—raspy, unlistenable in public—but I can get musical notes to sound from my vocal cords. I hope to have a full recovery by the end of the year at the latest.

Coming soon? Some book commentaries, and other surprises. In the meantime, feel free to visit my Books-Into-Movies Blog.

750th Anniversary of the Rise of Baybars to Sultan of the Mamluks October 21, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in 1260, Ayn Jalut, Baybars, historical fiction, history, Hulegu Khan, Mamluks, medieval period, Mongols.
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Just a little less than two months after the pivotal Battle of Ayn Jalut (see my previous blog post about one of the most neglected battles in history), life had changed dramatically among the Mamluk leaders. Sultan Qutuz and Baybars had been sworn enemies before they united to defeat their common enemy, the Mongol invaders under the command of Genghis Khan’s grandson, Hulegu Khan. Baybars commanded the Mamluk vanguard during the battle, and was instrumental in the Mamluk triumph. After their victory, Baybars and his forces pursued the Mongols north.

In the aftermath of the battle, Qutuz went to Damascus and consolidated Mamluk rule over Syria, now relieved of the Mongol occupation during the previous year. He rewarded Muslim princes who had fought with the Mamluks, and punished those who had submitted to the invading Mongols.

Baybars and men loyal to him had pursued Mongols to northern Syria. Some accounts of these events indicate that Qutuz promised Baybars the governorship of Aleppo in the event of victory at Ayn Jalut and then reneged. Other accounts refer to friction due to Qutuz’s abusive treatment of some of Baybars’ men for allegedly fleeing the Mongols during the battle. But the truth is that these men hated each other, had fought against each other in the past, and had longstanding grudges and grievances. Qutuz would have been setting up a serious rival for power in the region if he had granted rulership of Aleppo to Baybars. The men were destined to clash.

Qutuz had planned to go north to continue his consolidation of his control of Syria. But the rising tensions with Baybars prompted him to go south, back to Cairo. At al-Salihiyya, just east of Cairo, on October 21st or 22nd, Qutuz was assassinated. The details differ among different accounts. But the basic facts are that during a hunt, after Qutuz rode off on the chase for a hare, Baybars and some conspirators killed Qutuz. Baybars was installed as Sultan shortly after.

Baybars proved to be a talented, ruthless ruler, and more importantly, a gifted organizer. This had been a region fraught with disunity. Even Saladin, the great sultan of the Ayyubid Dynasty, considered one of the most important Muslim rulers of the Middle Ages, had trouble bringing together all the regions of his empire of Syria and Egypt. Baybars put in place organizational controls that would keep this empire together until the early 1500s. The Mamluks would defeat Mongol attempts to move back into Syria, and would drive the western Christian crusaders out of the eastern Mediterranean permanently. It is not at all certain that another ruler would have brought this region together as he did, and would have established the basis for a dynasty that would last over two hundred years. Bayars’ leadership established the stability in the region that ensured the Mongols would not be able to undo the results of the Battle of Ayn Jalut. On that October day, when Baybars rose to power as sultan of the Mamluks, an essential following event to the Battle of Ayn Jalut occurred, an event that made certain the lasting impact of the battle.

(My upcoming novel, The Sultan and the Khan, dramatizes these little known, historically pivotal events. More information about The Sultan and the Khan is available at my website.)

750th Anniversary of One of the Most Neglected Battles in History/The Battle of Ayn Jalut September 3, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in 1260, Ayn Jalut, Baybars, history, Hulegu Khan, Kitbuqa, Mamluks, medieval period, Mongols.
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On September 3rd of 1260, one of the most important battles of history occurred. Considering the global importance of this battle and its result, I also maintain it may be one of the most neglected battles in history. The conflict involved Muslim Mamluks from Egypt against Mongols under the rulership of Hulegu Khan, founder of the Il-Khan dynasty, grandson of Genghis Khan. Mongols had never lost a major battle. They had depopulated Central Asia during the rule of Genghis Khan, and Hulegu’s forces had more recently reduced Baghdad from one of the world’s great cities to a ruined town surrounded by rotting corpses. A generation earlier, the Mongols had defeated Christians as well, overrunning Russia, utterly destroying the great medieval city of Kiev the way they would devastate Baghdad, as well as overrunning significant portions of Eastern and Central Europe.

After destroying Baghdad in early 1258, the Mongols threatened the very existence of Islam, moving south, taking Aleppo and Damascus, and looking further southwest to Egypt, maybe even to the rest of North Africa and the Mediterranean. They believed they were destined to rule the world and even the third generation of Genghis Khan’s sons/grandsons were fanatically committed to that purpose. They appeared to most in the eastern Mediterranean to be invincible, to be the inevitable ruling power of the region. Many Ayyubid princes, descendants of the legendary champion of Islam, Saladin, submitted to Mongol authority, along with the Christian states in Georgia and Armenia, and including even the Crusader state of the Principality of Antioch.

But in Egypt, Sultan Qutuz, a slave-soldier who had recently seized power, decided to defy the Mongols. He was aware the bulk of Hulegu’s forces had withdrawn from Syria to Azerbaijan to be ready for involvement in the Mongol succession. The Great Khan, Hulegu’s brother Mongke, had died a few months before. So Qutuz sensed an opportunity. He rallied like-minded Muslim warriors, including a bitter rival, Baybars, to move out of Egypt to take on the reduced Mongol forces under the command of the Mongol general Kitbuqa. The Muslim forces negotiated passage through the declining Crusader state, The Kingdom of Acre, and the two forces found and met each other at Ayn Jalut, also known as the Springs of Goliath.

On September 2nd, 1260, Baybars, commanding the vanguard of the Egyptian Mamluk forces, found the Mongols and fought a brief skirmish as his forces retreated. The next day, Mongols and Mamluks fought the main battle. The Mamluks drew the Mongols in with a feigned retreat, ironically a favorite tactic of the Mongols. After the setback of being momentarily fooled by their own tactic, the Mongols fought back, overwhelming the Muslim flank. It looked like the Mongols would gain victory after all. But Qutuz rallied his men with an impassioned plea, and that, along with a key defection of a Muslim prince from the ranks of the Mongols, handed the advantage to the Mamluk forces. Kitbuqa was killed, and Syria lay open to the Mamluks.

The Battle of Ayn Jalut led to the beginning of the Mamluk state in Egypt, a state that would rule significant areas of the Middle East until the early 16th Century, a state that would complete the expulsion of the western Christian “crusaders” from the Middle East by the end of the 13th Century, giving Muslims the final victory in that series of religious battles known as “the crusades.” But most importantly, the perception of Mongol invincibility ended. The zenith of the Mongol influence was established by this battle. The Battle of Ayn Jalut changed the world.

The argument can be made that the battle was an effect more than a cause, that Mongol decline was inevitable. But almost any large event in history can be seen that way. Mongol decline, through overextension and dynastic rivalry probably was inevitable. But the Battle of Ayn Jalut was the specific moment when a defiant, courageous leader chose to test whether the “inevitable” Mongol decline had arrived. It didn’t have to arrive at that time. Submitting Egypt to the Mongols was an easier, safer decision, the way the Ayyubid prince al-Nasir Yusif, ruler of Damascus, had abandoned that city to advancing Mongols and eventually submitted to them himself when taken into custody. If the “inevitable” decline had begun at a different place and time, history would have been different. So this deserves the designation I have suggested—of one of the most neglected battles in history.

The Battle of Ayn Jalut is the setting for the climactic final event of my novel, The Sultan and the Khan, follow-up to my novel about the Third Crusade, The Swords of Faith (now available wherever books are sold). The events leading up to the Battle of Ayn Jalut offer significant, surprising drama. Christianity mixes into the conflict in surprising and exotic ways. Mortal enemies become crucial allies in pursuit of larger goals. The Battle of Ayn Jalut and the events surrounding it make a great story, as well as constituting a key event in history. The story is populated by colorful characters, clashing perceptions of the world, and vicious, ruthless brutality allowing few options for the contending sides between victory and destruction.