Chris O'Neill's Reviews > Amgalant One: The Old Ideal

Amgalant One by Bryn  Hammond
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it was amazing
bookshelves: historical-fiction
Read 2 times. Last read May 30, 2018 to September 8, 2018.

The Question is Not What You Look At

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.

Highly recommended.
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Quotes Chris Liked

Bryn  Hammond
“Our children aren't here to fix our mistakes, but to have lives, lives we can't guess at.”
Bryn Hammond, Against Walls

Reading Progress

Finished Reading (ebook Edition)
May 30, 2018 – Started Reading
May 30, 2018 – Shelved
September 8, 2018 – Finished Reading
October 12, 2018 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
October 12, 2018 – Shelved (ebook Edition)
October 12, 2018 – Shelved as: historical-fiction (ebook Edition)

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