My sister Bryn Hammond has published her first novel - or, to be more exact, the first volume of her novel Amgalant: The Old Ideal. And it is magnificent.
Now you may think that I'm biased, and maybe I am - but the truth is that this is My Favourite Book Ever. Bryn knows that I wouldn't say that if I didn't mean it in the simplest and most straightforward of ways, and the rest of you will of course make up your own minds one way or the other. But I love this book, and the second volume as well (which will be available soon), and I am eagerly anticipating the third (which has yet to be written).
Amgalant is a retelling of The Secret History of the Mongols, the story of the man we know today as Genghis Khan, but whom we meet as the lad Temujin. It is set, of course, some centuries ago in a country and among a people with whom most of us aren't familiar. And it brings the whole to such vivid life, it's as if it's all happening right here and now to us.
Before we meet Temujin, we meet his parents, the chivalrous Yesugei and the marvellous Hoelun.
It wasn't that Yesugei was harsh, but people found a sad eye from him very hard to stand.
From what should have been inauspicious beginnings - he is moved to kidnap her - they come to love each other, and from that very first chapter I was in love with them, too. As I was with the novel. Bryn retells the story in ways so evocative, so full of human motivation, and always with such respect for human dignity, that we are moved to understand things that our modern world no longer condones. In this she reminds me of Patrick O'Brian and his skills in recreating ways of thinking that are in the past and rather foreign to us now - evoking them in such vividness and with such respect for all involved that we become involved, too.
Hoelun was a queen in her court in her weather-battered great tent in the wilds; there she answered to no-one, and she flourished.
Bryn recreates a whole world here, with its varied peoples and customs, beliefs and mores. It is large and vivid and whole. As detailed and as solid as today. In this she reminds me of Tolkien and his creation of an epic Middle-earth. The narrative is pungent with truth and ayrag.
People, and boys the worst, are so much more intelligent than what comes out of their mouths.
(I found myself salivating to drink ayrag, by the way, even while I wondered how anyone even could. I mean, whose idea was it to first try fermented mare's milk…? How desperate could they have been? But the characters love it, and now I can't help but love it, too. From a respectful distance.)
And by no means is this novel all serious business! There is plenty of awesome humour, of the clever, quiet, wry, character-driven sort. The book had me laughing and chortling and burbling along, sometimes all at once. I'd give you an example here, but it's the sort of humour that belongs so much in context that I feel I should leave you to find it there. Oh, OK, one little snippet which won't need any backstory.
Pardon my Chinese, lady. We don't have a Mongol word for what they are.
Meanwhile, the story tells us about both whole peoples and the individuals who create history through their lives, their choices, their loves, their heartaches. There are Arthurian echoes, of a leader seeking to unite fractious tribes against a common enemy, endeavouring to create justice based on right rather than might, trying to deal well with both the big picture and the personal, and all the while searching for his definitive hat.
Wisdoms, the sport of kings.
Give Amgalant a try! You can sample up to half of it for free on Smashwords. You might not care for Temujin and his story after all, of course - but there's also a very real chance you might come to love him like I do.
(reviewed 5 months after purchase)