If Amazon had a ten star rating I would have given this a five. Also I was looking for something more focused on Central Asia than all of Eurasia but this book is definitely, as it clearly says, about Eurasia, so I am absolutely not rating this based on what I hoped for versus what I got. This is not my first research rodeo. Let's break it down:
1. Lots of extremely useful (to me) geographical information.
2. Lots of extremely useful (again, to me) information on the broad movement of groups of people.
3. Lots of good synthesis of the above information with timeframes, something many books fail to deliver.
4. The writing style was readable, pleasent even, and mostly clear.
5. The early emphasis on climate change and disruption was very interesting. If he seems to lose that thread later it's because the climate stabilized, which is fair.
1: Not to put too fine a point on it, the first five chapters were an absolute DRAG. And there was no reason for this except the author didn't warm to his subject until he could find a toehold for his own biases. And while it won't read like a biased book, it absolutely is. To wit:
2. How, in 2014 (when this was published), do people still get away with writing as if half the human population doesn't functionally exist? How? I've been researching historical subjects for thirty years, and in source material from, let's say, 1950, sure, okay, but how is this still going on? You can't excuse yourself when you take the time to repeat "population growth", "population uptick", "population explosion", etc. and act as though this randomly happened, while also insinuating only men farmed, only men herded livestock, only men fought, only men ruled, only men everything. Oh, sure, he uses the accurate term "humankind" instead of "mankind", but then only pays attention to men. The great steppe warriors charging around doing warriory things is cute and all, but does not a culture or history make and, not to belabor the point, but archaelogy has repeatedly shown there were a lot of female warriors too in that region, if that's the only thing about the "Central Asian hoardes" that fascinates you so much.
Okay, I'm going to belabor this point. It's obnoxious is what, when you go out of your way to quote extensively from Herodotus and yet somehow manange to never mention the Amazons. You choose to think Herodotus is accurate for some things but not for others. In fact if you go out of your way to mention, begrudgingly, as if they were singular, the cultures of the Massagetae and the Sauromatae and then you choose specifically NOT to tie this in to Herodotus who you were just extensively citing for far less interesting reasons? Imma sideeye you, hard. Your bias is showing. That was one of the more obvious examples. The second to last chapter on the Mongols was another glaring example. And I can hear the excuses now: "Oh, he didn't get into the lives of men either!" I'll stop you right there, when you compose an entire book with a male default and the vast majority of names you mention are male, yes, you have gotten into the lives of men. And then you choose to never explain how cultures sustained themselves while these mystical male steppe warriors you're fangirling over were running around warrioring. "Oh, you're just trying to be politically correct!" No, I'm trying to be factually correct. Historically correct. Accurate. Whether you purposely or unwittingly ignore half the human race, you are the problem, not me.
3. He has a neoliberal globalization bias that is really obnoxious given this is a clearcut case of taking a current mode of viewing things and trying to apply it earlier times.
4. Same goes for his obsession with capitalism and trade. There was so much room for so many interesting things, and he didn't access any of it.
5. He overuses the word "elite". That should tell you something. He also uses the word "sedentary" to stand-in for too many things. He has a fixation on the old fantasy/historical novel trope of the "decadent empire" vs the "tough resilient warriors", which is a trope because oh my lord yeah we get it, eating well and not murdering everyone all the time is totally awful, whatever dude.
6. In a really big oversight, in my opinion, the slave trade gets no analysis whatsoever. It hardly gets mentioned. And given how slavery operates in shaping cultures and landscapes and his more preferred subject, economies, that's kinda a big deal.
7. And last, religion. He takes the time to mention Buddhism and Islam specifically, and Christianity of course. This leaves one with a lot more questions than answers, given the thousands of years of other religions all across a huge region-- some of which remain intact to this day. And it's a little weird, for example, that he spends so much time on Islam, even going into a dumbed-down version of the Sunni/Shia divide, and almost none on the main religion of Persia that predated it, Zorastrianism, which had such a huge influence regionally. If he didn't bother to delve into the modern Abrahamic religions so thoroughly (relative to the other subjects in this book) I wouldn't take issue with this, but he did, and that's a pretty big fail in my estimation. Religion drives all kinds of things, and modern patriarchal religions are not exceptional in that regard.
Look, if you don't care about people and culture and even a broad overview of how societies operate, this is totally the book for you. He just doesn't seem to have it in him to look at these things in any meaningful way. I learned nothing about the culture of any region. Now, to be fair, this book is an overview. But if you can repeat yourself about numerous subjects and theories, you can certainly fill in some blanks. And honestly, overviews are only as good as what they reveal. This book revealed geographical movement in a really useful (to me) way. I'm not sorry I ordered this and read it and now have it to reference for that reason. But the missed opportunities to answer really basic questions just kills it for me.
Maybe I'm in denial. Maybe I'm not as agnostic on this book as I think I am. Maybe I'm trying way too hard to give him the benefit of the doubt. Anyway, there's my review.
- Paperback: 544 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press UK; Reprint edition (12 October 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0199689180
- ISBN-13: 978-0199689187
- Product Dimensions: 2.8 x 18.8 x 24.6 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 1.1 Kg
- Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 10,597 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)