Gates of Rome by Conn Iggulden, Book 1 in the Emperor Series

Gates_Of_RomeHaving already read the Conqueror series about Genghis Khan by Conn Iggulden, I was looking forward to the Emperor series. I must say I was a little disappointed as it did not have the same intensity.

To be fair, the Emperor series was Conn’s maiden attempt at writing epic historical fiction, and The Gates of Rome, his very first book. I suppose once Conn had cut his teeth on this genre with Emperor, he excelled on the Conqueror series.

Not much is known about the early life of Julius Caesar, but from inferences in the biography by Suetonius, Iggulden was able to create a fictional account of what may have occurred. Iggulden as he usually does, takes great liberties by introducing Gaius and Marcus as boyhood friends who grow up together learning the arts of war on Gaius’s father’s estate. Gaius as we know, is in fact Gaius Julius Caesar and Marcus is Marcus Junius Brutus who was the leading figure in Caesar’s eventual assassination.

In Iggulden’s fictional version of events, the two boyhood friends are separated in their early teens, with Marcus joining a foreign legion in Greece and Gaius entering politics in Rome under the patronage of his uncle Gaius Marius, who was a rival to Sinna, another famous Consul.

The rivalry between Sinna and Marius is loosely based on historical facts, but the eventual showdown between them in Rome is total fiction. After Marius takes control of the city, Sinna who was away on a foreign campaign, returns to defeat him. In the aftermath of this civil war, Julius Caesar is evicted from the city, joins a naval legion and swears to return and seek revenge for the killing of his uncle by Marius.

And that’s where the first book ends. I have not started the second book yet, but hope it gets better than the initial installment.

Conqueror by Conn Iggulden [Book 5 in the Conqueror Series]

This appears to be the final book in the Conqueror series by Conn Iggulden. While it focuses on the life of Kublai Khan, arguably the greatest conqueror inĀ  Mongol history since Genghis, Iggulden chose not to relate the complete (historical) tale of his (Kublai’s) final conquest of China.

Instead to Iggulden chose to end the book at the point where Kublai wins the civil war he had engaged in with his brother Arik-Boke to become Khan of the Mongol empire. He may well have had an idea to continue the tale in another book, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see. For now it appears unlikely.

While Conqueror felt like the most bloody and violent book in the whole series, Kublai was by far the most merciful of all the Mongol Khans since Genghis. From almost the beginning, right until the last bloody pages, the lives of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are expended, and for the most part described in gory detail.

The Plot

Mongke Khan, elder brother to Kublai, succeeds Guyuk Khan as the leader of the Mongol nation. Guyuk was a particularly ruthless Khan and was not worthy of the title. Kublai who had until that point spent most of his life in scholarly pursuit is dispatched East into China by Mongke in an effort to “toughen” him up. The other brothers Hulegu and Arik-Boke are sent West and into the Mongol homelands respectively, to rule land already conquered there.

In his quest to bring the Sung Dynasty to heel in China, Kublai undergoes a fascinating transformation from scholar to master tactician and leader of an army outnumbered by far. However in complete contrast to the tactics employed by his grandfather Genghis, Kublai chose not to burn entire cities to the ground, nor butcher the inhabitants. This tactic probably won him more favour with the Chinese and led to cities surrendering much quicker.

Mongke dies (en route to join forces with Kublai to defeat the Sung), and Kublai’s younger brother Arik-Boke declares himself Khan. When Kublai, learns of this he is angered and decides to wage war with his brother to reclaim the title which he feels rightfully belongs to him. He calls off his triumphant march onto the Sung Capital to return home to Karakorum to fight for his right to the title of Khan.

With the help of his “orlok” general Uriang-Khadai, Kublai eventually wins the civil war against his brother and declares himself Khan. Iggulden decided to end the book at this point and does not continue the historic tale of how Kublai eventually went on to found the Yuan Dynasty in China. It would have made for fascinating reading, so let’s hope he does produce a 6th book in the series.

Note on Historical Accuracy

Although Iggulden once again takes quite a few liberties in terms of historical accuracy, it does not detract from the sense of wonder one feels at the accomplishments of Kublai Khan, who ruled over an empire larger than that of both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. In fact, the book entices one to make an effort to seek out the historical facts about this fascinating era.

Wolf of the Plains by Conn Iggulden [Book 1 in the Conqueror Series]

Until recently I had been reading only non-fiction. I had forgotten how one could become so enthralled with a good work of fiction, that one finds it near impossible to put down. Be warned – Wolf of the Plains is such a book. It is utterly relentless in pace and graphic in its descriptions of combat, turmoil, pain and anguish.

Wolf of the Plains is a work of historical fiction, based on the early life of Genghis Khan. Even though Conn Iggulden takes some liberties with the historical facts, it does not deviate so far as to corrupt history. However, Iggulden addresses some of these in the Afterword.

The plot revolves around Temujin, the second son of the Yesugei, Khan of the Wolves, one of the many warrior tribes that inhabit the great plains of Mongolia. After the assassination of his father by the Tartars, Temujin at the age of 11, is betrayed and cruelly abandoned to die, together with his mother Hoelun, brothers Bekter, Khasar, Kachiun, Temuge and baby sister Temulen, by his father’s closest ally and bondsman, Eeluk. He usurps power, appoints himself Khan of the Wolves and moves the tribe away to a new location, leaving Temujin and the family to fend for themselves on the cold steppes with no food, shelter or weapons to defend themselves or hunt with.

Temujin and his family survive and he grows up to become a fierce warrior and leader. After many raids and battles Temujin manages to gather a vast army of warriors, uniting the various warring tribes into the powerful Mongolian nation, under his leadership. At the end of the first book Temujin assumes the title Genghis, khan of the sea of grass.

One of the things that stood out for me was how Conn Iggulden does not bother with detailed descriptions of the landscape as some authors of fiction tend to do; tall grass flapping in the breeze, gurgling streams and lazy animals grazing. He leaves that for you to find in the works of Wordsworth or Yeats. Through his expert narrative of the characters’ emotional and physical trials and tribulations, you get a sense of the harsh Mongolian plains, the bitterly cold winters, and what it must have been like living in the times of these great warrior nations.

Having had my appetite whet, I’ve already dived into Lords of the Bow, the second in this series on the life of Genghis Khan by Conn Iggulden, and will report on it shortly.