Well that went on for a while, didn't it? The Mongol Empire, and the book. I didn't rip through the last chapters of Genghis Kahn in the same headlong dash that I advanced through the first half, and I suspect that has something to do with a basic narrative truth. Jack Weatherford gives us an epic mash up of hero's journey, slashing fantasy and slick infotainment package covering the first decades of the Empire. In other words, covering the life of Genghis Khan.
I still remember being struck in the first chapters at how closely the story seemed to follow the familiar arcs of the best fantasy literature. The names, the setting, the characters it could all have been drawn from Patrick Rothfuss, Peter V Brett or George RR Martin. Indeed the more I read the more it became blindingly obvious how many fantasy authors had not been borrowing from Tolkien, but rather from the great Khan.
Nothing wrong with that. In fact I intend to go back and read this book again and plunder it without mercy for some of the later titles in my Dave Hooper series. The rise of the Mongol Empire would be an object lesson in world building if it hadn't been an exercise in reconstructing an ancient world on Weatherford's part. Likewise the collapse of the empire a couple of hundred years down the track provided exactly the sort of detail I've been searching for, often fruitlessly, online in the field of "resilience studies".
You don't really see it in Protocol, and you only begin to see it in the still untitled second Book of Dave, but just as I do in Without Warning, I'm planning on breaking the world. Because of this I found the stresses both internal and external that finally collapsed the Empire to be both fascinating and useful. I'd always known that the Black Death had come out of China, but I'd never put all the Lego blocks together in my head. I hadn't remembered any of my high school history – we had to study Kublai Khan as I recall, dimly – and consequently although I knew quite a bit about the ravages of the plague in Europe, I knew very little about all of the history that have to pass before it arrived.
That same experience, of shaking my head in surprise, was a regular feature of reading this book. It's pretty hard to grow up in the modern world without having at least a glancing acquaintance with Genghis Kahn and the moguls, or at least with our vague cultural memory of them. The famous Schwarzenegger/Conan quote about true happiness being found in driving your enemies before you and hearing "der lamentations off der vimmin" is popularly attributed to Genghis, although as Weatherford points out this is something of an historical slander.
That was the other thing that struck me as I read. So much of our understanding, or rather misunderstanding of Genghis Kahn and the Mongols is tainted by the refined barbarism and bigotry of self-serving European colonial designs in the nineteenth century, rather than the older, more deeply embedded fears of earlier ages. Fears which gave way to admiration and commercial engagement with the later descendents of Genghis.
If we think of him at all, we pay him the compliment of assuming he was a military genius, but just how much of that genius lay in a flare for bureaucratic organization had escaped me until now. It's easy to imagine how the tactics of hunter gatherers could be advantageously applied to tribal warfare. It's less obvious, although Weatherford does a good job of making it clear, how they'd useful when scaled up to the strategic level.
It was enlightening, astounding even, to learn of how truly modern the barbarian emperor was, and how so much of modernity that we take for granted, and assume is purely Western – the separation of church and state, the tolerance of multifaith culture, the promotion of individuals based on talent rather than hereditary – of how much of that originated on the steppes.
My Kindle version of this title is littered with footnotes to which I will return over the summer while writing the third book in my next series. At some point I'll grab a hard cover edition to place on the shelf of the library. I can already see it will be worth having around, if only for the kids' benefit as they go through high school. I've already drawn on it once when helping Anna with an assignment about the Edo Era of Japanese history, a period characterized by a strict feudal hierarchy headed by the Shogun, or military governor. Weatherford, you may recall, made the point that it was the attempted Mongol invasion of Japan that contributed to the militarization of that society.
Having said all that, and having enjoyed the book, omigod it just went on and on. Like the Mongol Empire. And once the story was decoupled from the personal journey of Genghis Kahn it became less compelling. Still interesting yes. Fascinating in parts, especially the links he drew between the European Enlightenment and Renaissance and the rise of Europe as a colonial power, but I could imagine that people without a professional interest a such as I have, may have flagged by that point. I did see a couple of you complaining in another blog entry about the authors "voice".
This, I'll confess, vexes me. I listened to a lot of this book on Audible, dipping into the Kindle version when I wanted to delve more deeply into a particular point. I found Weatherford's prose to be exactly what was needed, highly polished but not complex. Words put together like shiny machine parts to do a very particular job. So I'll be interested to hear from anybody who had a different experience.