Libbie Hawker (L.M. Ironside)'s Reviews > Against Walls

Against Walls by Bryn  Hammond
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really liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction, small-press-indie-and-self-pub

This large and finely crafted novel is the first in a trilogy which seeks to bring The Secret History of the Mongols, the oldest surviving Mongolian written work, to life. The Secret History is part historical record, part fanciful myth, and all Genghis Khan – or Tchingis Khan, as he is more properly called, and Temujin more properly still, for that was the name of the real man who rose to legendary greatness on the Mongolian steppes.

The Old Ideal begins with a groundwork in Mongolian myth and religion, then builds to a family history of Temujin, and finally Temujin himself arrives on the scene, a baby born in the midst of war, on the day his father dies. Temujin grows up amid war – not only the war that took his father’s life, but also a war among his half-brothers. From early in his life, the reader can sense that this boy is more than a boy – he has an air of destiny, and courage that few possess. The novel tracks Temujin through his early adulthood and ends with his assumption of the title Khan. Further exploits – including much defeating of other clans – are promised in the next installment, appropriately subtitled “Tribal Brawls.” And, the reader assumes, the feat for which Tchingis Khan was best known, uniting the Mongolian tribes into one great empire, will surely follow in the trilogy’s final installment.

What’s extraordinary about this novel is the way the narrative feels both modern, as if the story is being related by your history-buff friend from 2012, and perfectly historical, as though your friend is also a time-traveler from some era around the middle of the thirteenth century. Bryn Hammond has accomplished a feat seldom seen in literature: Retaining the very distinctive character of her historical source material while injecting it with her own narrative voice; and this feat is all the more remarkable when you consider that this is a long book. My Kindle shows over 12,000 “locations” in the text, which converts to roughly 580 pages of printed text. The enchanting quality of the voice stays consistent throughout.

In part, Hammond has made The Secret History her own by weaving in bits of poetry and prose from other native literary sources who wrote extensively and rapturously on the subject of heroes. According to her author’s notes, Hammond entwined the hero-poetry of the Old English (including but not limited to Beowulf – Aha! I thought that passage was familiar!), the Germanic tribes, and even the Inuit. The result is a hero story that feels at once specific to Tchingis Khan and universal to all heroes everywhere; and the text itself takes on the flavor and rhythm of ancient poetry.

And there’s the rub. Hammond has been so faithful to her source material that a modern reader may find herself stumbling frequently. It is often necessary to stop and “unpack” the meaning of a sentence or a passage, in the same way that a modern reader new to Old English writing must ponder over Beowulf. Often I found myself a bit dazed by the sudden mention of an unknown character or event, only to have that character or event explained in full later in the chapter. The result was feeling as if I’d walked in on a conversation I was never meant to be a part of, and had to “catch up” later on. A bit less faithfulness to the original material could have provided a more accessible reading experience and a tighter flow of plot – but my wish for a slightly more modern reading experience doesn’t lessen my admiration for what Bryn Hammond has achieved in her near-flawless marriage of historical poetry and modern storytelling. Perhaps a good compromise for future editions would be the inclusion of front material alerting the reader to the existence of the extensive glossary at the end of the book. I didn't realize it was there until I'd finished reading on my Kindle!

Thanks to the author’s extensive research and her obvious love for the setting and characters, Amgalant is rich with historical detail. The smallest parts of life on the Mongolian steppe are clearly illustrated – household gods (and how to properly worship them), clothing, what constitutes richness versus poverty, and so much more. Yet the novel never feels like a “fashion show,” as so many historical novels do, nor are these details delivered in the dreaded “info dump.” Hammond has pieced together an education in Mongolian culture, an admiration for epic hero poetry, and the fascinating stories of real people using practically invisible stitches.

While we are on the subject of real people, the richness and depth of character in this novel is as remarkable as the rest. Amgalant: The Old Ideal has a good many characters – I hesitate to declare that there are as many as in your average George R. R. Martin novel, but surely the count comes close. But as much care has been given to the individuality of each and every one as has been given to the individuality of Temujin himself. Often characters are witty, too, so that this novel provided me with several laugh-out-loud moments as I read the snappy exchanges between all these well-drawn characters.

Amgalant is an impressive achievement. Mongolian culture is rarely explored in historical fiction, and Tchingis Khan is usually depicted in few dimensions – that is, as a big scary barbarian conqueror, not as a real man with a real history. Amgalant’s first volume shows much promise that, when the trilogy is concluded, the world of historical fiction will be able to enjoy the history of the Mongols from a different, truer, more satisfying perspective. I look forward to the next book.

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Reading Progress

January 30, 2012 – Started Reading
January 30, 2012 – Shelved
February 7, 2012 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
February 7, 2012 – Shelved as: small-press-indie-and-self-pub
February 7, 2012 – Finished Reading

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