Review

Genghis: Lords of the Bow

by Conn Iggulden

Define “civilization” however you want, but
there’s always going to be some amount of barbarism mixed in
to whatever definition you can come up with.

Only a truly technically advanced civilization could produce things
like 50-inch high-definition plasma televisions with
picture-in-picture and remote control, but only a truly uncivilized
barbaric horde could make sure that the only things worth watching
at any given time are celebrity dating shows, Rachael Ray cooking
programs, and baseball games on the West Coast that don’t
even start until after my bedtime. Civilization gives you email,
barbarism gives you spam. Civilization gives you iPods, barbarism
gives you “American Idol.” Civilization gives you
luxury sedans with satellite radio and heated leather seats,
barbarism gives you traffic jams to sit in.  It’s all
intertwined.

Conn Iggulden has completed his second book focusing on Genghis
Khan’s life story. Large wedges of it are about the conflict
of barbarism and civilization, and a lot of that has to do with
water, of all things. Genghis leads his united Mongol tribes off
the steppes of Central Asia into the hinterlands of China, but is
balked by the tall walls that surround the Chinese cities. His
soldiers are superb cavalrymen and bowmen --- savage, ruthless and
skilled --- but they stare at fortifications in vain. The first
city they encounter is served by irrigation canals, so Genghis
sends his men out to break them. This ends up flooding a
significant part of the Mongol camp, which is a minus, but leads to
the eventual capitulation of the city.

Iggulden makes the contrast between the uncivilized Mongol horde
and the civilized Chinese empire even starker in two other scenes
involving water. Genghis sends two of his brothers to infiltrate a
Chinese city, and they find themselves enjoying the pleasures of
hot running water for the first time. At the same time, Genghis
leads his young sons to a far-off river in winter, making them
immerse themselves in the near-freezing water to make them the kind
of tough-minded conquerors who could overthrow the great cities of
China.

Iggulden --- co-author of THE DANGEROUS BOOK FOR BOYS --- is trying
to make the point that the Mongols were able to challenge the more
civilized, more educated, more sophisticated Chinese Empire because
they inculcated the warrior virtues (which Genghis summarizes as
“the cold face”) of stoicism, courage and martial
skills. (Iggulden never draws the contrast between our
television-addled, PlayStation-wielding boys of today with
Genghis’s sons, though it seems to be a preoccupation.) But
as Genghis imposes his will on the Chinese, civilization imposes
its will on him. Not only is his youngest brother Temuge seduced by
the lure of hot baths, he becomes the Mongol Empire’s first
official bureaucrat.

All of this sounds as though GENGHIS: LORDS OF THE BOW is little
more than social commentary merged with horse opera. Gladly, there
is much more to it. There is an incredible amount of wanton
destruction and cruelty, enough to delight the heart of the most
bloodthirsty armchair Mongol. Early on, there is a scene where
Genghis discusses the mob of peasant refugees who have been kicked
off their farms by his rampaging horde. He decides that there is
nothing left for the peasants to do but die, and they are killed,
making a mountain of the dead --- and this is just an aside in one
paragraph. (Later on, even worse things happen to the next set of
peasants.) This is a fighting book, filled with scenes of battles,
melees, sieges and military exploits of every kind.

And at the head of the river of blood stands Genghis Khan, imagined
by Iggulden as implacable, honest and forthrightly determined to
make the world safe for Mongols to do what Mongols do. Genghis is a
bit less likable here than he was in Iggulden’s first book
about him, GENGHIS: BIRTH OF AN EMPIRE, where he was an abandoned
child struggling to survive. But here he leads his incomparable
cavalrymen into a conflict with civilization itself, one that he
can win, and one where civilized modern readers (safe in their
armchair, with their satellite radio and laptop close at hand) can
cheer his victories.

Genghis: Lords of the Bow
by Conn Iggulden

  • Publication Date: March 25, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Delacorte Press
  • ISBN-10: 0385339526
  • ISBN-13: 9780385339520