There’s a scene toward the end of the third novel in this series that encapsulates the stakes of this work very nicely – a city hasn’t paid its tribute to Genghis Khan, and he’s ordered an example to be made. Consequently, when the Mongol army breaks the walls, they spend all day rounding up the 160,000 citizens that didn’t die during the siege and then spend most of the next day executing them all before taking everything valuable out of the city and razing it.
This is a bad day for the Mongols since it takes such a long time and all that hacking dulls up their swords.
What to say about a man who would order such a thing to be done? And this wasn’t his first turn at the massacre rodeo, either. The various Mongol conquests caused at least 30 million deaths and as many as 70 million deaths – an astoundingly modern-sounding total considering it’s the thirteenth century and all, and none of our modern efficiencies existed yet, so someone had to personally go out and stab these folks (except of course in the cases of mass starvation or disease in besieged cities). Admittedly some of this continued after Genghis himself died, but we’re still talking about a man who presided over tens of millions of killings of his fellow humans.
Iggulden’s trilogy, which is strong historical fiction, shows Genghis as more than an ordinary man. At the same time, it also shows him making mistakes, failing to see the big picture, and having the sort of ordinary family troubles that beset us all.
The first book in the series follows the future Genghis (called Temujin at that point) as he is a young man in a small clan in a tiny part of Mongolia. He’s a tough kid and he leads a hard life, and his ambition is to one day be the khan of this band like his father is. Since he’s the second son, this may prove difficult. But then his father gets murdered by his enemies, neither he nor his older brother are old enough to effectively assert control, and the new khan exiles their whole family to solidify his own power. Genghis ends up killing the older brother and growing to adulthood in an extremely hardscrabble and desperate way with his mother, sister, and three remaining younger brothers. According to history, that all really did happen. And then there was a spark, or there must have been a spark.
Genghis decides that all the tribes need to stop fighting among each other, but in order to do that realizes that they need an overall leader. Who better than him? And so he begins recruiting a band of men from other un-tribed and exiled men like himself, making a name for himself by raiding the enemies of the Mongols, learning strategy. Eventually he’s got enough men to take control of one clan, then his father’s, then a bigger one. The book ends with Genghis declaring his intention to become Khan of all the tribes.
The second book begins as this ambition is realized. Genghis has been absorbing more and more tribes into his army. Those remaining tribes that don’t want to give their allegiance to him realized that they couldn’t stand on their own, and made their own alliance against him. But it’s too late, the last battle occurred before the book even really starts and the focus is really on what Genghis wants to do next – attack the Chinese kingdoms to the south that he feels have been manipulating and marginalizing the Mongol people for centuries.
In the third novel, Genghis ignores China for a while since the Khwarazmian Empire has made a personal insult to him and he decides that this cannot be tolerated. If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of the Khwarazmian Empire before, that’s because of what the Mongols end up doing to them here. This, like many of the other major events in these novels, is not fictional.
There’s a lot of brutality in these novels, like you might expect. People get shot with arrows, crushed by siege weapons, starve to death, covered in molten silver, and in one case just get chased until they drop dead of pneumonia. Genghis himself kills probably hundreds of people, with typical weapons frequently, but also with the sleeves of his armor, and in one memorable instance picking a guy up and breaking his spine over his knee. (This individual has always been described as scrawny, this isn’t an 80s action movie move exactly.) At the same time, Iggulden appears to have scaled back some of the atrocities just a little bit – Genghis is portrayed as having two wives, one of whom is a Chinese princess. In reality, Genghis had at least six Mongolian wives, numerous foreign ones, and spent so much time with other women that 5% of the current population of the Earth is his direct descendant. He is tactfully suggested to be raping various captive women on a couple of occasions, but in truth I’m just as happy to not read pages and pages of sexual assault, and probably Iggulden just didn’t want to put that in there.
The central paradox in this series is the fundamental problem of child rearing. People under harsh privation are often tough and awesome as a result, and they want their children to also be tough and awesome, usually in the same ways that they themselves are tough and awesome. At the same time, privation sucks. Intentionally raising your offspring under privation when you don’t have to is a dick move; removing the privation ensures that your kids will not necessarily share your outlook or your priorities. What is a great warlord to do? Adding to this problem for Genghis is that he’s not sure that Jochi, his oldest son, is actually his own son – his wife Borte had been kidnapped by Tartars around the time of Jochi’s conception and, well, you never knew for sure back then. He treats Jochi really coldly as a result and is oblivious to the fact that this harsh treatment has made Jochi into the ideal successor in most ways.
Genghis also suffers from a certain lack of vision. He’s certainly not stupid, he’s a master of warfare and leading his men, and he quickly realizes the importance of certain practical skills, like siege engineering. And his men aren’t out of control barbarians, either, their environment has made them into disciplined warriors. At first, Genghis’ plan is simply to kill everyone who’s not Mongolian, but then his advisors persuaded him that living Chinese can pay tribute, and he also realized the utility of sparing people that quickly surrender. But in truth he doesn’t need the tribute, and by the end his people are carrying around literally tons of silver and gold that they don’t have any particular use for. Genghis doesn’t need money, since he just takes whatever he wants, and he doesn’t really want anything more than to have big feasts, go hunting, ride fine horses, sleep with women, and fight. Silk is useful since he can use it as armor, iron’s good for weapons, but he doesn’t really understand what people want with gold.
Since he doesn’t care about or have any use for cities, he’s not a very good administrator. So it’s sort of a shame that he conquers so many of them. His advisors and sons recognize that the Mongols are going to need to make some philosophical adjustments if they’re actually going to rule an empire and not have to go around re-conquering every city every few years, but getting Genghis to agree with that is more difficult. He didn’t get where he was by listening to people. And in that sense this book is a tragedy, since you can see the seeds of the Mongolian Empire’s dissolution in the decisions that Genghis makes. He makes it hard for his successors to have orderly transitions of power and he isn’t really that interested in making their jobs easier.
It’s also a tragedy, of course, that so many other people had to die for Genghis Khan to achieve whatever it was that he was trying to get out of life. It’s a strength of the series that Iggulden manages to make you feel a little bad for Genghis, and showing some of the Mongols’ genuinely amazing deeds, without dehumanizing their opponents.