Debut author Graft’s historical novel follows a young, kidnapped nomad in the Middle East.
Near the upper Volga River in 1236, Duyal goes about his regular duties as a Kipchak. The Kipchaks are a migratory people whose lives revolve around the animals they tend. It’s not an easy existence, and it’s made even more difficult by raids from enemies. After a devastating attack by Mongols, Duyal is enslaved and taken from the steppe. His final destination is a citadel in the city of Hisn Kayfa in what is present-day Turkey. The citadel, much like Duyal, belongs to a powerful prince named al-Salih Ayyub. The plan is to turn Duyal, along with other captured boys, from wild children of the East into Mamluk warriors. The boys train with swords, lances, and bows. If life on the steppe was hard, life in the citadel is almost unbearable. Many of the boys will fail the difficult training, and some will even die. Those who pass, however, will become fearsome warriors. Will Duyal be among the victorious? That question is answered stage by excruciating stage. The text abounds with evocative portrayals, like that of the city Hisn Kayfa: “Upstream, the blue-muddied river winds its way through irrigated fields of green, the rich foliage eventually tapering to tan.” Many particulars are time-appropriate and interesting; for example, in bow training, Duyal doesn’t jump directly to the massive qaw. He and the other recruits must instead work their way up from smaller weapons like the flexible kabad. However, the spell of an ancient environment sometimes falters with lines of modern dialogue. One novice is asked “What’s your malfunction?” and the reader may be left to wonder whether they hadn’t been transported some 700 years into the future world of Full Metal Jacket. Despite such anachronisms, there is an exciting urgency to Duyal’s survival and the greater question of what he will do should he make it through the program.
Excitingly illuminates an ancient class of warriors despite a few missteps.