Wolf of the Plains

(Credit: Conn Iggulden and Harper Collins)

Genghis Khan is a figure in history I’ve never known much about. My vague ideas about him were formed from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure  — a movie I loved as a child. Unfortunately, as most of the historical characters in that film were not very accurate stereotypes, I really had no idea who this warlord was and constantly confused him with Atila the Hun. “Barbarians” conquering big empires, who wouldn’t?

I hadn’t really thought that much about my ignorance until one day when my cousin said that if I was looking for a book to read, Wolf of the Plains was a good one. I looked it up on my Kindle, found it and placed it on my wishlist. For a while, it stayed there, because now that I have the luxury of being able to read a book when I feel like reading that particular book, I’m a bit choosy about the next volume I’m going to download. But at last the moment came and I was ready to buy it.

Strangely, however, it told me that the book was now no longer available in my region. I wondered whether Iggulden had chucked a hissy fit about rights, shrugged my shoulders and proceeded to buy something else. That was the last I thought about that book for a time.

Then at Christmas, while struggling to find a present for my father, I thought of my cousin’s words and decided that if one family man had liked the book, likely another would. So I bought Wolf of the Plains, thinking — I know, I’m a bad daughter — that I’d be able to borrow the book when he was done.

That my father was done so quickly was a testament to the book and, indeed, I too finished it during the weekend I received it.

The story starts with a battle. We meet Yesugei, the Khan of the Wolf tribe and also meet the Mongolian landscape, which is harsher than anything I think I would like to know, requiring tribesmen to smear themselves with mutton fat to protect exposed skin. The battle is happening at the same time as the birth of Yesugei’s son and when he rides back to his tent, called a ger, he names the son Temujin,which if I recall correctly means iron.

Little Temujin was born with a clot of blood in his hand, which the midwife takes to be a bad omen, but for us, lets us know that we’re in for a good story. This man will ride with death.

Indeed he does. He learns under his father’s harsh tutelage, but when his father dies, his family is left to starve and freeze on the plains. From here on, the book describes Temujin’s journey to turn his fortune around from that of a young boy with no hope to survive to a Khan on his way to uniting the Mongolian tribes.

There’s something about this book, set before Temujin becomes Genghis and before he loses his human traits, which really drew me in. I loved the characters — the enmities, the friendships. I loved the descriptions of the Mongol culture. I loved pretty much everything.

I’m sure it’s not particularly historically accurate, however, enough is likely true for it to have left an impression in my mind of how it once could have been.

I loved it so much that I checked my Kindle to see if the second book, Lords of the Bow was available, even if I hadn’t been able to buy Wolf of the Plains. Surprisingly, it was, and even more surprisingly, Wolf of the Plains was also there, as long as I didn’t try to get it through my wish list. Glitch? Probably. Annoying? Yes. The other annoying thing is that the books don’t have text to speech enabled, so I can’t listen to them when I’m at the gym or cleaning or walking to work, which for me is almost a “do not buy” criterion.

Lords of the Bow goes on to detail the beginning of Genghis’ extra Mongolian conquests. I found this a lot less interesting than the first book, because it wasn’t as personal a struggle. Genghis had almost stopped being a man and started being a legend. I still enjoyed the story and learning more about the other characters who were so important for the Khan, but the second book just didn’t have the same pull for me.

Despite this, I have bought the third and am about half way through. Bones of the Hills follows in the same vein as Lords of the Bow, as we travel into Arab lands. Genghis seems to have become even more ruthless and even more prejudiced against one of his sons, who he believes was conceived from his wife being raped. This saddens me immensely, especially since I looked at the Wikipedia entry for Genghis before starting this post and discovered that the son in question dies before his father does. This son is portrayed as such a likable character, it really pains me to know that he is heading towards a bad end.

However, I’m sure that’s Iggulden’s intention and he has certainly pulled my heartstrings masterfully.

I would recommend this series to anyone who likes a good strategic battle book and stories of men overcoming weaknesses of the body to triumph against all odds. I’m giving Wolf of the Plains a 4.5/5, Lords of the Bow 3.5/5 and Bones of the Hills 4/5, although I haven’t finished the latter yet.