Conqueror: A Novel of Kublai Khan, by Conn Iggulden. Delacorte Press (New York, 2011). $16.00, PB, 512 pp.
Sometimes it is best to begin at the end of a story and work backward to the beginning. Such is the case with Conn Iggulden’s fifth Kahn book, Conqueror: A Novel of Kublai Khan, the last of the Kahn historical novel series. Iggulden, who lives in Hertfordshire, England, is not only the author of the Kahn quintuplet, but also of four books on Julius Caesar and several other works.
The Kahn quintuplet began with the release in 2007 of Genghis: Birth of an Empire, the story of a Mongol named Yesugei, the father of Kachium, Khasar, and Genghis Kahn, who united the wandering tribes from the Black Sea to the Yellow Sea into an empire. In Genghis: Lords of the Bow, released in 2008, Iggulden narrates Genghis Khan’s successful trek across the Gobi Desert with thousands of warriors to conquer the Chin (Chinese) city of Yenking (modern Beijing).
According to Iggulden, “It took four years, and the inhabitants of Yenking were reduced to eating their own dead by the time they opened the gates and surrendered in 1215” to Genghis, who “accepted the surrender along with tribute of unimaginable value.”
“One of the chief advantages of the Mongol army was that it could turn up just about anywhere in a surprise attack,” writes Iggulden in the historical note at the end of Genghis: Lords of the Bow. “There are well-attested records of covering 600 miles in nine days, at 70 miles per day, or more extreme rides of 140 miles in a day with the rider still able to continue.”
The third novel in the series, Genghis: Bones of the Hills, released in 2009, narrates Genghis Khan’s battles with Arab warriors as he continues to expand the boundaries of his empire. Also prominent in this book is the birth of his sons Jochi, Chagatai, Ogedai and Tolui. By the end of the book, Genghis is dead.
Khan: Empire of Silver, the fourth book in the series, released in 2010, concerns the sibling rivalry among Genghis’s sons. Ogedai is just about to be declared the new Khan, but he delays his coronation ceremony to build Karakorum, a city in the wild plains, while his brother, Chagatai, challenges him.
Ogedai serves as the Great Kahn for only 12 years, 1229-1241. “At a time when the Mongols were sweeping west into Europe, Ogedai’s death would be one of the crucial turning points in history,” write Iggulden in the historical note to Khan: Empire of Silver. He adds, “Western Europe could not have stood against them.”
The last novel in the series, Conqueror: A Novel of Kublai Khan, begins with Sorhatani’s time as regent before Ogedai’s son, Guyuk, is named Khan. However, his reign lasts only a short time, as he is murdered by an assassin. This paves the way for three of Sorhatani’s sons to become Khan successively: Monkge, Arik-Boke, and Kublai, about whom most of this last work is focused.
Iggulden adds this paragraph that concludes the series: “This story began with a single, starving family, hunted and alone on the plains of Mongolia — and ends with Kublai Khan ruling an empire larger than that of Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. Over just three generations, that is simply the greatest rags-to-riches tale in human history.”
While a glossary of terms would have been helpful in the first four books, it does not appear until the last one. However, many of the foreign terms employed by Iggulden are defined in the text. Likewise, the index of characters doesn’t appear until the last book.
Iggulden writes with an engaging style. He is able to draw in the reader and make interesting a story that took place in the 13th century between the Black Sea and the Yellow Sea where man with a vision united many warring tribes and turned them into a mighty empire that is still recorded in history books today.
Father Boyer, a priest for 37 years, is the author of 33 books primarily in the areas of biblical and liturgical spirituality as well as numerous articles in various magazines, including The Priest, for which he wrote Homily Backgrounds 1987-1993. He teaches in the Religious Studies Department of Missouri State University, Springfield, Mo.