Africa · Books · China

Mongols, the Middle Ages and white Africans – book reviews

We were spared the wrath of the typhoons last week here in the north of Taiwan, but this week might see Typhoon Tembin swing back up, after having ravaged parts of the south late last week. Meanwhile the Atlantic has this interesting piece last week on the Diaoyutais– in response to a survey on a hypothetical situation, the majority of Chinese netizens voted for other citizenships that are not mainland China for their children. But it’s not so surprising; these people are just being practical and wanting Hong Kong or Japanese citizenship isn’t a sign of being unpatriotic, just a sign of awareness that mainland China isn’t the best place to raise your kid if other options were available.

Been doing a lot of reading recently and decided to clear up the backlog on reviews. One of my favorite fiction genres is the historical novel, specifically those that combine historical settings with military campaigns and famous people. I read two good ones recently – Khan- Empire of Silver by Conn Iggulden, and Requiem- Fall of the Templars by Robyn Young.

The first one, Empire of Silver, is the fourth book in a series on Genghis Khan and his heirs. It takes place when Ogadai, the third son of Genghis, ascends to the throne, while finished building his lavish capital of Karakorum whilst also fending off a threat from one of his brothers and deciding on his heir. It’s a tumultuous time for the Mongol empire because Ogadai is in bad health but has sent a major army West to Europe, which might have serious implications. Of course, if you know your history, you’ll know the outcome, but it’s interesting to see just how precarious the situation was for Europe was in light of the Mongol advance, especially when the Mongols easily swept through Russia and conquered Moscow. Meanwhile half of China is in Mongol hands as the Chin (Jin) emperor retreats with the last of his soldiers into the lands of the Southern Song, which up to now has been spared Mongol terror. There’s some decent minor mentions of the great Yangtze Delta cities of Hangzhou (the capital of the Southern Song from 1123 to 1276), Suzhou, and Nanjing (then called Jiankang). One of the best subplots concerns the four royal cousins, all sons of the sons of Genghis, all serving together in the campaign against Europe, and proving their worth as leaders. Unlike their fathers, they are not rivals yet but this won’t shield them from dynasty politics in the future. There is another book after Empire of Silver which will definitely continue the drama and development of these young Khans as well as the fate of the Mongol empire.

Requiem is the final novel of a trilogy about the Knight Templars, the Crusades, and the war between Christiandom and Islam. However Requiem takes place completely in Europe, as the Christian forces were routed and forced to flee their last strongholds in the Middle East by the mighty Saladin in the last book Crusade. Will Campbell, a Scottish Templar (a fictional character and the main protagonist of the series) knight returns to France in a time of war with the English. Campbell learns of a dark secret that makes him leave the Templars and return to his native land, then becomes involved with the French in a misguided attempt to take revenge on his enemy, Edward I, the King of England (some might remember him as the aging king “Longshanks” in the movie Braveheart). In fact, William Wallace appears in the book, leading the Scots to their famous victory in Stirling before losing at Falkirk and eventually being captured by the English and literally being cut open and ripped apart. There’s also the murder of a Pope and the rigging of a Papal election and the start of a new Scottish uprising after the death of Wallace (the author is writing a new trilogy focusing on this). The most famous, and tragic, event in the novel is the destruction of the Templar order. The French King Philippe, desperate for revenue to continue his war against the English, and his top minions charged the Templars with heresy, arresting, torturing and executing thousands of Templar knights while confiscating their property and wealth. This novel differs from the previous two, in the location, but also in the character development. Will Campbell comes off as uncertain, desperate and reckless, and doesn’t uphold his leadership of the Anima Templi, a secret organization within the Templar order which is dedicated to peace with the Muslims. This is a fictional subplot and is only a minimal presence in Requiem, in contrast to the previous two novels.

I also read Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, a memoir by white Zambian author Alexandra Fuller. Another one of those memoirs by white Southern Africans (like The Last Resort which I finished a month ago), this one is actually about the author’s parents, especially her mother. I didn’t quite enjoy the quirky and somewhat irreverent tone of the book at first, which makes the parents seem whimsical, especially noticeable given their background as white Africans, not that this means they have easy lives. But the book starts getting a little somber and tragic later on as the author’s parents experience a few things no parents should ever have to experience. It’s a poignant story that takes place in Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and unfortunately, it’s a good tale of how sometimes, we can’t quite overcome problems in our lives, but have to bear them as best we can.

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