In the late twelfth century, across the sweeping Mongolian grasslands, brilliant, charismatic Temujin ascends to power, declaring himself the Great, or Genghis, Khan. But it is the women who stand beside him who ensure his triumph....
*Spoilers contained in this review*
I won a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway. This has not influenced or biased my opinions.
This book immediately drew me in with its breath-taking beautiful narration and rich historical detail. I loved the story surrounding Borte, called "The Seer." What I did not realize (since I tend not to read too much of the back of a book) is that this book is split into four different narratives. The first is of the great wife of Genghis Khan. It was a tale full of devotion, personal sacrifice, and growth. So much happened in this first section that shaped the rest of the world. It was a strongly emotional journey.
Then we got to "The Khan's Daughter." I was less thrilled with this character. Right off the bat, Genghis Khan's daughter, Alaqai, rewards a boy for letting her follow him on a "male's only" activity by having sex with him. Ugh. At that point I knew Alaqai would not be my favorite character. When she was married off to become queen over another district, the chapters became absorbed with so much anger and fighting. It got to be uncomfortable to read. The focus surrounded disagreements and frustration and was less about Alaqai using her acumen to forge a path for herself in her new kingdom she was married into. Alaqai ruled in the stead of her invalid husband for years, yet this developing knowledge base was never brought to light which is probably when most of her maturity developed. There was also an awkward and predictable romance that develops between Alaqai and her husband's son. In the end, Alaqai faces off against the people of her new community and wins her place as their queen in a final standoff. I wanted to see more of Alaqai using her ideas and her words to develop relationships.
Thornton also starts to bring in the foundation of different religions that Alaqai (as well as Fatima in the next chapter) is exposed to. Alaqai ponders the meaning of religion in her life, but she never really decides on anything. Her husband's son is a teacher in a religious center, so I thought perhaps there would be more exploration regarding faith in the lives of the ancient peoples and how faith might give strength when hope seems lost. I hoped Thornton would take a stronger view for her characters on their beliefs and how they are challenged/changed as the women discovered more of the world that Genghis Khan swallowed within his empire. Unfortunately, the different faiths while mentioned in the book are never given more than a fleeting glance.
The next chapter is about a Persian captive by the name of Fatima, and it brought a new twist to Thornton's tale. As an outsider, the reader got to experience a different view on the society of the Mongols. Many of their traditions are so completely different from what Fatima is used to. Fatima lives with the people that destroyed her city and killed her husband, yet she finds a family within them despite her deep personal loss. It’s a very good chapter focusing on the growth of different relationships as many more losses occur to "the golden family" during this time span.
Unfortunately, at this point in the book, time did not flow well. Sometimes chapters would encompass years without a clear mark of time. Even in the early chapters, suddenly children who were just born at the start of the chapter were then running around and riding horses after a couple paragraphs. The marking of time was all but forgotten about in the last two sections. It was sometimes mentioned, but it was not put at the start of a chapter like it had been for the first couple sections. I understand that not all chapters marked a new year, but it was very helpful to have as a reference. Also, it seemed that people traveled great distances in a short amount of time (especially in the last chapter when Sorkhokhtani was gathering allies).
The final section is the shortest but should have been one of the longest. This last woman helped to stabilize the Khan's empire and overthrew a cruel leader and his wife. She was a fighter mostly through her quiet intelligence and patience. Even in the Author Notes at the end, Thornton remarks on Sorkhokhtani's importance in the history of women. However, her chapter is so short! I really wanted to get to know her more. She successfully ran her husband's lands (the “Prince of the Hearth” and Genghis Khan’s son) after his death, she raised sons who would make great rulers, and she was a woman very similar to Borte (bringing the novel full circle). With the impact Sorkhokhtani had in the history of Mongolia, I would have appreciated more importance given to her story. She and Borte were my favorites. She was a talented musician, was literate, and never sought power for herself. She was content to run her family's lands in the shadows of the Khan’s family. Yet when her sons needed her, she fought with unstoppable courage. She also realized that wars were not always won by bloodshed but sometimes through words and negation.
Overall, this novel is extremely well detailed. I loved the references the characters made which helped draw the reader into the mindset of the time period and the people inhabiting it. I loved many of the characters and their relationships. I would definitely read another novel by Thornton. However, at times the narrative of this novel seemed to focus more on the weather and less about the intelligence and aspects of strength in her characters. The women of Genghis Khan were strong, rode horses, fought in wars, and helped rule the nation. I enjoyed this glimpse into the lives of these women.
"Descendants of Avalon"
Released via Inklings Publishing
("The Forgotten" volume 2)
Reviewed and awarded the
2016 Indie Editor's Choice
by the Historical Novel Society.
Long listed for the Historical Novel Society 2017 Indie Award.
Goodreads profile at: https://www.goodreads.com/JElse