By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Stefan Rudnicki
In three historical novels, Conn Iggulden puts flesh on the bones of Genghis Khan, the leader of the Mongol Hordes that ruled the largest land empire in history. The first of the audiobook series is “Genghis: Birth of an Empire” (also known as “Wolf of the Plains”). All three books entertain and inform by telling the story of a leader with fact and fiction blended to make Genghis Khan a believable historic figure. Each book rests on its own merit as an episode in Genghis Khan’s life; i.e. each book paints stages of Khan’s life from birth through childhood, to maturity, and death. This first book explains Genghis Khan’s order of birth and rise to rule.
Iggulden’s history creates fictions that reinforce known information about Temujin’s rise to Khan from childhood. Temujin is the second son of a tribal Chieftain. The Chieftain’s sons are presumed by the clan to become the tribe’s Chieftain when their father dies but he dies before the sons reach manhood. Temujin, his mother, four brothers, and a newborn sister are cast from the tribe when a former tribal guardian rejects the Chieftain’s heirs and takes over rule of the clan known as the “Wolf” tribe.
The attraction of Iggulden’s writing begins in its first chapter. A story about Temujin and his three brothers draws the listener into a world of hardship, bravery, and violence. It is a tale of three brothers climbing a mountain to steal two baby eagles. One begins to believe Temujin is destined to be the great Khan of history because of the boy’s tenacity when facing hardship and conflict.
The tipping point of belief in the destiny of one boy is when Iggulden writes that Temujin murders his older brother. The purported reason is that Temujin’s older brother deprives his outcast family of the food they need to survive after being cast out of the “Wolf” tribe. Whether this episode of life is true is not important except in the sense that it artistically marks Temujin as a warrior and leader. Temujin is vilified by his mother for the murder but he steadfastly supports and manages the outcast family. As Temujin reaches the age of 17, the “Wolf” tribe’s usurping leader decides to find and destroy Temujin and his family. A savage conflict between heir and usurper is destined to close the final chapter of this first book of the series.
What makes Iggulden’s historical fiction fascinating is that one believes a leader of Genghis Khan’s dimension had to be ruthless to consolidate and dominate the Mongol tribes. Until the Khan’s ascension, the Mongol tribes were disjointed nomadic clans with individual Chieftains.
All history is filled with information gaps. Writers like Iggulden give context if not accuracy to history. It is true that Genghis Khan ruled a great empire in the 13th century but being alive at that time, living with Temujin and his family, would have been the only way of knowing what made Temujin grow into such a historic figure.
Putting history’s accuracy aside, Iggulden writes a great story with concrete directness and believability. The books’ narrators (Richard Ferrone narrates two of the Genghis Khan historical novels) tell an entertaining story of the life and times of a brutal, effective, and dominating 13th century world leader.