Monday, September 27, 2010

The Birth of the Moghul Empire

Raiders from the North:  Empire of the Moghul
Alex Rutherford
St. Martin's, 436 pgs., $24.95

The cover was what first attracted me to this book.  I mean, a big axe about to fall against a backdrop of a marching army, with the "O" in the word "North" a shield.  What's not to love?  But many a book has failed to live up to the promises inherent in its cover, so what about the contents?

I'm delighted to say that, while not quite what I was hoping for, this book was well worth the price.  The book is a biographical novel about Babur, founder of the Moghul dynasty in India, and the first in a series called Empire of the Moghul.  This is not a period of history with which I have much familiarity.  Must have been absent when the football coach history teacher covered that unit in school. The term Moghul is the Persian word for Mongol, given to Babur by Shah Ismail as an insult.  Of course Babur adopts it with pride.

The book opens with Babur's father, king of Ferghana, in what is now Uzbekistan, telling him about his destiny to uphold his heritage.  Babur was descended from Timur, known as Tamerlaine in the West, on his father's side and from Genghis Kahn on his mother's side.  This speech, while sounding a bit contrived, sets the tone of the rest of the novel.  Following his words to his son, Babur's father goes to his dovecote on the side of the palace wall, which breaks off and falls to the bottom of a ravine, killinng him and most of the doves.  Thus at twelve, Babur becomes a king.

The schemes, intrigues, and hatching of plots begins immediately.  Aided by the commander of his army, Wazir Kahn, and his wiley grandmother, Esan Dawlat, Babur manages to survive and prosper, at least when he isn't hiding in the hills from his enemies.

Alex Rutherford is the pen name of Michael and Diana Preston, a husband and wife writing team, and they drew heavily from Babur's diaries, known as the Baburnama.  The diaries contain gaps, possibly because Babur didn't always write in them or possibly because some volumes were lost during or shortly after Babur's life.  For example, there is an eleven year gap between parts 3 and 4 of the novel.  In a brief afterward, the Prestons mention that they condensed some portions of Babur's life as well as combined characters in the diary into single individuals.  These characters include Wazir Kahn and Baburi, a market boy Babur befirends who becomes his most trusted companion.  A quick internet search revealed that much of Babur's reign in Kabul and conquest of India were condensed or omitted.

This being a historical novel, there is none of the neatness of plot one would expect to find in a work of pure fiction set in an imaginary world.  Major characters come and go with little or no warning.  Acts of villainy, and there are plenty, often go unavenged, at least by Babur.  Because the authors chose to stick to the main outline of Babur's life, they were compelled to follow to the basic facts rather than tie things up neatly.  This strengthens the novel rather than weakens it.  The speech Babur's father gives him in the open pages sets the theme for the rest of the book, Babur's destiny as a descendant of Timur.  After he has lost both his home kingdom of Ferghana and the city of Samarkand (long coveted by his father and held by his uncle until Babur captures it) and is being pursued by an army of Uzbek raiders, Babur never loses sight of his goal and gives up, even when wallowing in the depths of self-pity.  Indeed there are several exchanges between Babur and Baburi over this notion of destiny.  Baburi at times serves as a foil for Babur, contrasting the freedom of a street urchin with the bonds on a ruler.

Where the book least met my initial expectations were the battle scenes.  While the authors don't shy away from details at times, the details are used sparingly. This makes the specifics more powerful, such as when Babur and his men come upon a small village pillaged by the Uzbeks.  This is probably one of the more graphic scenes in the book and is one of the most effective.  Whereas a writer such as Robert E. Howard would have given detailed accounts of the battles, bringing the reader into the scene with his use of details (which is what I was expecting when I bought the book), the Prestons paint the canvas of the battlefield in broad sweeps, using enough detail to convey the ebb and flow of the armies, but on a less personal scale.  Very little details are given about individual combat except when Babur is directly involved in the attack (or retreat). 

Instead the book focuses on Babur's rising and falling in his attempts to fulfill his destiny and reclaim lands once belonging to Timur.  Character is the emphasis here, not carnage, although there is enough of that to whet the appetite of most fans of action adventure.  Babur grows from an inexperienced, and soft-hearted, young king to a harsh, and at times merciless, emperor.  While I thought the last few years of his life were given short shrift, overall the picture painted is a complete one, with Babur spending the last years of his rule trying to groom his sons to succeed him.

The book closes with Babur's death in his late 40s.  The second volume, Brothers at War, was published this past June in Britain.  I'm looking forward to reading it.

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