I have a confession: I'm not much of a swords-and-sandals gal. With apologies to fans of "300," if there's historical mayhem involving sharp pointy things, I'll be at home watching "Miss Marple" reruns. Make the hero one of history's most ruthless conquerors – rather than, say, a valiant band fighting to save their country from a million Persians – and it would take a CPA to calculate the probability of my liking that book.
Meet Conn Iggulden, defier of truly astronomical odds. The British writer is no stranger to historical novels, having written the acclaimed "Emperor" series about Julius Caesar. He's also familiar with subjects dear to boyish hearts, having written, with his brother Hal, "The Dangerous Book for Boys," a nonfiction book about skipping stones and tying knots that was voted Book of the Year at the Galaxy British Book Awards in March.
In Genghis: Birth of an Empire, the first of a planned series, Iggulden recreates the coming of age of the founder of what became the largest contiguous empire in history.
Iggulden is helped by a childhood right out of myth. Facts about the early life of Genghis Khan (more properly Chinggis) are sketchy, since 12th-century Mongolian nomads were typically illiterate, but Iggulden easily fills a book with the few known facts. Born around 1162 to 1165, Temujin was the second son of the khan of the Blue Wolves. By the standards of the day, when spoiling your child could get him killed, he had a loving family life until he was 12 (some accounts say 9). Iggulden excels in describing the spartan joys of life as a nomad. (Hint: Mongolian barbecue is nowhere on the menu; cheese curds and salt tea are delicious treats.) The novel opens with Temujin and his brothers racing flat out across the plains on their horses, then climbing to capture an eagle chick for their father. That's pretty much the last time he has any fun.
As is tradition, Temujin is sent to his mother's tribe to live for a year. His uncle and cousins aren't exactly welcoming, since his dad, Yesugei, had kidnapped his mom in a raid, killing one of her brothers and wounding the other. (Iggulden makes Hoelun a woman of strength and resolve, but he never answers the question of how she came to love her husband.)
Then two events occur that shape the adult Temujin and, consequently, the next 150 years. First, Tartars out for revenge poison Yesugei. Rather than be led by a teenager, one of Yesugei's bondsmen takes over as khan, and his first order is to abandon Hoelun and her six children. The tribe strips the family of everything but what they are wearing and abandons them to the harsh Mongolian winter. Improbably, Hoelun keeps all but one of her children alive. She would have had a perfect record, but Temujin and another brother, in the first example of the ruthlessness that would found the Mongolian Empire, kill the oldest boy after discovering he's been hoarding food while the rest of the family starved. (Somehow, the phrase "I'm telling Mom on you" tragically eludes them.)
Four years later, things get worse. The new khan decides he's made a mistake in letting Yesugei's children live. Temujin expected an attack, but is captured while giving his siblings time to escape. Except for the help of two men still loyal to his father, "Genghis" would have been a mighty short book.
After his capture and torture, Temujin abandons the quiet life and begins his quest to unite the nomadic tribes and thoroughly – really, really thoroughly – avenge his father's death. After all, this is a guy who describes a good time as follows: "I do not think I have ever tasted anything better than another man's food eaten in his own ger [yurt]. If I had his beautiful wife and daughters to entertain me, I would have it all."
Iggulden writes with sweep and immediacy and does justice to Temujin's tactical mind and the resolve and imagination that built an empire. His main character is largely without mercy, but he's motivated by implacable expediency rather than sadism. (There's one exception: a revenge sequence of ritual cannibalism that's lurid and over the top.) "Genghis" also has rather less bluster and more humor than I've come to expect from the genre. A lot of the latter is courtesy of the culture clash between the nomads and a high-ranking Chinese official miserably exiled among the tribes. A subplot involving the Chinese contingent gets curtailed abruptly, but overall, the novel races along as swiftly and inexorably as its main character.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.