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Against Walls: 1 Paperback – 25 April 2018
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- Publisher : Independently published (25 April 2018)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 570 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1980893969
- ISBN-13 : 978-1980893967
- Dimensions : 15.24 x 3.63 x 22.86 cm
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That made me laugh. Then, like Cutula, I blame it on Confucius, too. 'When you see a worthy person, endeavor to emulate him. When you see an unworthy person, then examine your inner self. '
Kudos to the author for the enjoyable read and for spurring on my interest and my imagination with her excellent writing and passion for her subject.
That’s a line from Henry David Thoreau’s Journal. The full thought: “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” It captures what I have enjoyed about the Amgalant series by Ms. Bryn Hammond. Her historical fiction trilogy unpacks the human motivations hidden within “The Secret History of the Mongols,” an official history authorized by Chinggis Khan’s successors shortly after his death. Two of three volumes have been published by the end of 2018. The first is titled “Against Walls” and describes the early struggles of Temugin set within the predatory raids of Mongol rulers before they were properly a unified people. The second is called “Imaginary Kings” and describes Temugin’s rise to become Chinggis Khan and the ultimate unification of the tribes into the Great Mongol nation. No publication date has been announced for the final volume, “Scavenger City.”
In a word, the writing is extraordinary. Ms. Hammond’s style is unique and creative. Initially difficult for me to feel, the rhythm became natural to my reader’s eye and ear, and the story vibrated with engrossing character development. The hero is Temugin (the future Chinggis Khan) who endures endless barriers to grow into the great Mongol unifier. Other characters include: Yesugei (Temugin’s popular warrior father) and Hoelun (his tough, proud mother) and Bortë (his wife who is kidnapped in revenge for an earlier insult by his father), Bo’orchu (his first sworn sword), and many others. Then there is Jamuqa, Temugin’s “anda” (the Mongolian word for spiritual blood brother)—a growing presence who shares center stage through much of the story. Two months after closing the cover, each character still walks in my imagination as if through the backyard garden.
But wait! This is the story of Chinggis Khan—THAT Chinggis Khan—not some hero.
Indeed, to humanize one of history’s most infamous conquerors is not an enviable task. Whatever the author may have intended, “Against Walls” threatens a durable “Western” take on what Chinggis Khan represents. We prefer our historical uber-villains uniformly heartless, as if stranded in childhood trauma. Ms. Hammond, however, wants her Temugin remembered as the visionary who dreamed of unity among all Mongols against Chinese exploitation (Jin and Song alike). Thus, the series title is apt—Amgalant is the Mongolian word for unity, and her Temugin strides from the backcountry onto the world stage not as a vassal to Chinese empire but as the Ur-Mongol, tempered with human motives and emotions.
Ms. Hammond’s method is not easily labeled. Elsewhere, she writes that if the historian focuses on specific recorded events, the novelist is interested in the psychological sense of the event being described—what a person thinks and feels in a specific situation. Thus, if “Secret History” outlines the events, she supplies the emotional tissue that holds the story together as recognizably human. She accomplishes this by “interrogating” the text. In author’s notes at the end of “Against Walls” she writes: “I’m not out to dissect the text for its facts; [rather,] its art, explored, has every bit as much to tell us about how people were.” The reader can learn more about Ms. Hammond’s method by consulting her scholarly book on historical fiction technique called “Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe” (Rounded Globe, 2016).
Back to Thoreau’s observation: “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” With the second volume, “Imaginary Kings,” I began to read a translation of the original “Secret History” (translated by Paul Kahn, 1988) in parallel and realized how much motive and emotion the author breathes into the narrative through her (happy) brooding over the historical document. It is remarkable. Her approach brought to mind the interlinear translation of classics I once read in sophomore Latin class—not that I was very good at Latin or that “Secret History” content is remotely like a Roman classic. What I mean to say is that the author imaginatively discovers/fabricates motivation and emotion between the lines of “Secret History” like an interlinear translation inserts English phrases between the lines of a Latin classic. Furthermore, by setting aside commonly recited assumptions about a giant of history, her effort grinds against the popular heroic/demonic image of imperial Mongol power, releasing Temugin as a breathing, bleeding person, full of desire and uncertainty—befriended and hated, feared and hunted by others. And a man very much in love with his anda, Jamuqa.
Beware. Ms. Hammond breaks conventional editorial rules at will. It’s never a boring read, even if, truth be told, in some places I grasped only about half of the dialogue. While not every reader will persist through shifts in point of view and the frequency of strange Mongolian words and names (there is an excellent glossary), surprise and enjoyment emerge from how immersive the narrative becomes. I sank into the details—what every writer strives for and over which every historical fiction enthusiast drools.
A final note and a wish. For me, the series so far has been not only fascinating historical fiction but also the story of love’s power. The wooing scene between Temujin and Borte (his first wife) is charming, and the author uses a wonderful devise: the betrothed tenderly revealing themselves through a chest of cloths that are embroidered with evocative images. Much later, there is a charming moment when Temugin’s eldest son, Jochi, rides the wave of first love when his father gives him Jaur for a wife. Ms. Hammond evokes a besotted Jochi with Iilting prose that opens the moment: “Titled on his feet, Jochi was the image of strain in suspense, like a stag in arrest in the ice where he had tried to wade the floes a moment too late: they snap shut on him and keep him for a winter sculpture, aleap in icicles.” And the love-bond between Temugin and Jamuqa? It is so carefully explored that the relationship itself becomes a primary character of its own.
My wish is that the final volume of the series further elaborates the soul thread between the oath brothers. Temugin is a fascinating character, but he is most himself in relation to Jamuqa. I hope the author will somehow continue to nimbly finger that thread so readers settle to their own depths.
This book came to me free from Amazon. I have read two other books about Genghis Khan, so he is one of my favorite historical characters. The present book was by turns easy and hard to read. The misuse of personal pronouns, punctuation errors and sentence fragmentation made the book difficult for me to read. I read the book in ebook format. Some errors may have been due to the formatting or the edition I had. These are the negatives about the book which garnered a three star rating.
The positives far outweighed the negatives. It was a read that I looked forward to each day. It sounds trite to say that Genghis Khan was a truly great man; but, oh my, he was that and more. The author described him as such through her words. She wrote correctly about the things he did and things he accomplished. The author wrote her well researched truth about Genghis Khan making her book a very good read. Thank you, dear author. I look foward to reading your next book in the series.