In Xanadu did Kublai Khan…well, before all that, he had to take care of some nasty business, the subject of Hun-meister Iggulden’s (Emperor, 2003, etc.) latest installment in his series of novels devoted to the Golden Horde.
Here’s how to be a Hun in a few easy steps. First, kill anyone who gets between you and power. Second, rape and pillage. Third, practice saying meaty things, such as, “The world cannot be full of lead dogs, or the pack would pull itself apart.” Just so. But in the family of Temujin, or Genghis Khan, everyone wants to be the alpha Mongol, and, as Iggulden’s novel opens, the grandchildren are squabbling over who gets to be the grand poobah. The heroes of the piece, early on, are those who keep their heads and hold their allegiances close to their chests, such as the courtier named Ochir, who counsels one scion, “There must be no struggle for power, Guyuk, such as there was between your father and his brother.” Well, fat chance: This is medieval Mongolia, after all, and in those days before television, there was no better pastime than struggling for the throne. Iggulden is skilled at depicting the back and forth, and there’s even the historical fiction equivalent of a mysterian’s red herring in his steering the reader to back the wrong horse—uh, khan—until we finally get to the one who shows the most promise of surviving the internecine, interfamilial unpleasantness, a sturdy chap named Kublai, who intones lines that John Wayne himself (see The Conqueror) would be proud to utter: “He was khan, Orlok. Give him a funeral pyre to light up the sky.” Iggulden lacks some of the grace and sinew that inform the historical novels of Mary Renault or Robert Graves, but he’s made a very close study of the workings of power and its infinite abilities to corrupt infinitely, and his understanding shows on every page. Besides, he’s pretty good at the blood-and-guts stuff, the flying columns and whistling arrows and spurting blood that makes for a good battle scene.
A rip-roarin’ read, and inspiration to go and sack a few cities on your own.