... Obstacles fall across the way and force us to other paths. It is the way of things.'
Early in 1260 AD, news of the death of the Great Khan, M'ngke Khan four months earlier reaches Qaidu, khan of the high steppes, in the Fergana Valley where his headstrong daughter Khutelun has bested yet another suitor. A world away, in Acre, Josseran Sarrazini is commissioned by Thomas Bérard, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, to chaperone William of Augsberg , a Dominican friar, to the prince of the Tatars on a mission from the Pope. Thomas Bérard has also given Josseran a mission: to secure an alliance with the Tatar against the Saracens. Josseran and William's journey will be a long one. First they meet Hülegü Khan at Aleppo, and are told they must travel to Qaraqorum to meet M'ngke, Khan of all the Khans. The journey, they are told, could take four moons - or eight.
`The wind blows cold on princes and goats alike.'
While William is uncompromising and suspicious, Josseran has demons of his own to contend with. And life quickly becomes complicated when Khutelun is appointed as their escort. The story revolves around these three characters, as they each struggle to achieve their individual objectives. Ariq Böke and Khubilai are rivals to be Great Khan, and eventually this results in civil war. William and Josseran's journey is intercepted, and they are taken to Shang-Tu (Xanadu) to meet Khubilai Khan. Will any of them achieve what they desire? Will William and Josseran return to Acre? Can Josseran leave Khutelun behind to fulfil his vow to escort William?
There's plenty of action and adventure in this novel. From the plains of Palestine, over the mountains of the Hindu Kush, through the Taklimakan Desert to Xanadu, from the austerity of life on the steppes to the decadent luxury of Xanadu, there is much to see and be experienced. While the holy wars of medieval Europe provide a context for Josseran and William's expedition, it is the lives of the people along the ancient Silk Road that brings the novel to life.
I enjoyed this novel, and developed an extreme dislike for William which somehow seems appropriate at the end of the novel. While the story is complex, Mr Falconer tells it in a way that is totally absorbing. And the ending? You'll need to judge its effectiveness for yourself.
`A man's fate was certain, for we all owe God a death, but now all he wanted was to find either strength enough to die, or reason enough to live.'