A bloody good read

Conqueror by Conn Iggulden (Harper Collins)

This ultra-readable pop-historical epic is the fourth bulky instalment of a sequence about the rise of the Mongol khans. It’s a classic instance of what used to be called ‘a good read”.

A bloody good read, in fact, because the body count rises to astronomical numbers as Genghis Khan’s warring grandsons sort out their dynastic differences. Kublai is the one who ends up enjoying a stately pleasure dome in Xanadu, with one fifth of the earth’s inhabited surface under his sway. That’s no spoiler, by the way. We may know the destination, but it’s the journey that matters.

Conn Iggulden chose a ready-made plot for his Conqueror series, far-fetched but true. The outcast Temujin should have died of exposure; but he went on to become Genghis Khan, after militarising the nomad lifestyle of his Mongol tribe. Ogedai Khan succeeded him and extended the khanate with his all-conquering cavalry.

Iggulden starts the latest episode after the death of Ogedai. His merciless successor Guyuk Khan is a villain, without his grandsire’s military genius. He makes a violent and unregretted exit early in the game, leaving four brothers in line for the throne. Mongke Khan takes over in 1251. He’s your traditional Mongol cavalry commander, who despises such newfangled things as Chinese silk robes and books on science and philosophy. Give him a quarter of a millon men with four spare ponies each — and he’ll show that you don’t mess with the Khan.

Mongke leaves his brother Arik-Boke in charge of the homeland. But he sends the other two thousands of kilometres away from palace politics. Cruel, greedy Hulegu goes west — to extirpate the Assassin stronghold of Alamut and exterminate the population of Baghdad.

The unexperienced yet resourceful young philospher Kublai heads east, to resume hostilities with two enormous Chinese empires . This is a suicide mission for a man who is merciful by Mongol standards, but clever Kublai pulls it off and ends up as the ruler of the greatest khanate ever. His military strategies and tactics provide much of the excitement in Iggulden’s yarn, as urgent tale telling and wide-screen orgies of mass destruction keep the pages flipping rapidly.

To enjoy this book, there’s no need to warm up on the prequels — but if Conqueror thrills you then you’ll want to start with the first volume: Wolf of the Plains.

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