A debut novel combines elements of archaeology, historical fiction, and geopolitical thrillers.
James Andrews’ life is busy, but he doesn’t think he has much to show for it. An archaeology professor at the University of Virginia, he’s spent years digging in Mongolia, dreaming of finding the lost tomb of Genghis Khan. But this year, he’s only recovered a few ancient roof tiles and a tiny fragment of stray human bone. Andrews tells Parker Winthrop, the Asian Historical Society’s representative in Mongolia, that the bone probably belongs to “a peasant shot by the Soviets for trespassing and left for dead.” But everything changes when DNA analysis of the bone marrow points to Genghis Khan himself. And what should be cause for celebration also yields something far darker, as forces around the world have their own agendas for Mongolia and this discovery. Even people Andrews thought he could trust—or love—are caught up in the conflict in ways he couldn’t have foreseen. At the same time, the narrative offers brief windows into the story of Temujin and Jamuka, two boys in ancient Mongolia, one of whom will become Genghis Khan. Amid betrayal, mystery, and espionage, Andrews has his work cut out for him trying to get to the most valuable thing of all: the truth. Pelkey’s insightful novel moves at a quick pace, but it’s at no loss for details, and early scenes returning from the dig site or in Andrews’ lecture hall provide an excellent sense of the historical significance of Genghis Khan. What’s more, exposition smoothly flows in the text, pointing out the geopolitical reality of Mongolia, which is on the brink of a modern-day gold rush: “ ‘What about the Mongolians?’ Andrews asked. ‘It’s their country.’ ‘Road kill,’ Parker said with a flick of his hand.” On top of that, the characters’ uncertain loyalties give the book a sense of intrigue and emotionality, and the brotherhood and struggle in the Temujin and Jamuka sections only add to this unexpected depth. Finally, the fact that Andrews has a lot of uncertainty in his life—due to his frequent travels, far-flung friends, and short-lived romantic relationships—makes him a more sympathetic and relatable protagonist than most in these genres.
A clever, complex tale that should pique readers’ curiosity about Genghis Khan and leave them looking forward to the author’s next book.