on June 24, 2013 :
Amgalant One: The Old Ideal takes the beginning of the slim volume that is The Secret History of the Mongols (which, in the edition I found at Amazon, has fewer than 200 pages of verse) and enlarges it to create a compulsively readable, immersive world. And as this work--roughly six hundred pages in itself--begins an audacious trilogy intended to expand the whole of The Secret History, the prospective reader might ask why, and how, Hammond has so amplified the spare original....
As to the why, it's clear that she is herself enraptured by the time, the place ... and above all the historic characters she fleshes out to live their complex tribal lives. Hammond has researched every aspect of her enterprise, not to harass us with needless historic detail, but to make sure that the experience of the reader will be full and genuine. This is your chance to travel in space and time, and BE THERE, as the Temujin of the text--one day to be known as Genghis Khan--is fashioned into what was prophesied at his birth, when he was born with a blood clot in his fist.
You learn what the Mongols eat (a lot of sheep, it seems) and drink (black milk!). You discover many other things about their tribal culture. But essentially, the novel takes you into the minds of the protagonists as the Secret History plays itself out....
Seeing as Mongols saw each other, and the world (I got a new take on ancient China, and the wall intended to keep barbarians out), is where much of the action takes place. Interior conflicts.... Interior/exterior conflicts.... Interior monologues.... Interior dialogues ... trialogues...? Tribal conferences. Alliances with Tartars? War? What to do? Questions are at the heart of this version of the Mongol enterprise, when the future of much of the world could hinge on a shaman's reading of the cracks in a sheep's scapula. The rise of Genghis Khan might have been prophesied, but in this novel it was a supremely complicated thing to those who lived the beginnings of the largest empire known to man in tents.
As for the novel's actual prose, there's an aspect that at first was hard for me to get a handle on.... Hammond is totally (gleefully!) anachronistic, both in authorial commentary and in the speech and thought of her characters, so that the 13th century is displayed through contemporary, sometimes slangy, language. Ta! If you are bothered by anachronism, you will be bothered. As for me, once I adjusted, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, for Hammond's writing is rich, nuanced, humorous. Also, since there is no record of how her protagonists actually spoke, by simply abdicating from the attempt to "translate" their tribal language(s), she avoids the clunky linguistic contrivances of novelists that attempt to fake ancient and foreign, never written speech....
And I loved the strength and wisdom of the women in this novel, which surprised me, given a society in which they could be one of the spoils of battle.
In sum, Amgalant is a rare and different, wonderful read, although not always easy. Hats off to Hammond for her long, loving and continuing discipline. I look forward to reading the next volume.
(reviewed 67 days after purchase)
on April 11, 2013 :
I found this book somewhat difficult to get through. In itself the story was great and it was very interesting to read about the Mongol culture, but because I knew very little on the subject, I had some trouble getting into the story. A lot of cultural aspects are entangled in the story, and without any prior knowledge it is a bit overwhelming in the beginning. At first the unfamiliar names and customs sometimes confused me, and I really needed to look up the Mongol names and terms used to keep track of the story.
Later on I did get drawn in more, and did enjoy the story. It is very interesting to read and I think it gives a good view of how people lived and their customs and ideas. Apart from giving a nice insight into Mongol culture, the characters in the novel are also very real and worked out very nicely, we really get to know the main characters.
I would very much like to read more about the Mongols and Temujin (Tchinggis Khan), I find the culture and history very interesting, and since I knew very little of it I would like to read more.
All in all, a nice book with a good story and a wealth of information, but not a light read in my opinion.
(reviewed 6 months after purchase)
on May 19, 2012 :
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)
on Feb. 19, 2012 :
Amgalant One: The Old Ideal is the first novel in Bryn Hammond’s historical fiction trilogy set in northeast Asia in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Hammond’s protagonist is the person we know as Genghis Khan.
One of the many delights I encountered in this novel was that it’s written from the point of view of the Mongols. We speak of the Great Wall of China as if it were a single smartly executed defensive structure built by the civilized Chinese to keep out their “barbarian” neighbors to the north. Maps of the “Great Wall” reveal that it’s actually a number of mostly parallel east-to-west walls. The Mongols and their allies viewed these walls as offensive movements by the Chinese to bring more and more “barbarian” territory into China.
Thus: “these ghastly dead gigantic insects that crept across the steppe. . . . These ugly mean-spirited possessions of our mother earth, these worms, these anti-liberty flags and wind-blown banners to imprisonment, these thistles in the grass, these lines of poison. A nomad can do poetry, on walls. The Wall is what we hate. Civilization is what has done us wrong.”
Another joy for me is Hammond’s unique style, which isn’t meant for quick reading but for reading and contemplation. Here are some tidbits:
“‘Too stupid for battle. Is that a sort of oxymoron?’ His uncle the khan fixed an eye on him. ‘An oxymoron’s the other thing.’”
“At the worst news in the Mongols’ history, she wept for joy.” (She’d also learned that the man she loved had survived a disastrous war fought against both the Tartars and Chinese.)
“Survivors, for their punishment, have the worst sight.”
“Even a suspect action can have a nice consequence.”
“There’s a funny trick with knowledge of the future: you’re not meant to act and twist things up. You’re almost meant to know and then forget—go on as if you didn’t know.”
“The world’s early kings were sacred kings and had to be. Religious awe: tried-and-true to subjugate minds and overthrow the insistent, rowdy equality of tribes. In general, religion is found hand-in-glove with despots.”
And I’m so glad to see these “uncivilized” Mongol “barbarians” portrayed as people whose humanity and intelligence equal, when they don’t exceed, our own.
The son of a chieftain and his brothers abduct the bride of a member of another clan. They’re pleased when the groom makes no futile attempt to fight them off. They didn’t want to harm or kill him. The bride, who’d invited her abduction by staring approvingly at her abductor, wastes no time in deciding she’d rather have him for a husband than the man she’d been promised to.
The new couple’s first child, born on the worst day of that disastrous war, is Genghis Khan.
This is the kind of historical fiction I love. I greatly enjoyed the time I spent with Hammond’s Mongols.
(reviewed 22 days after purchase)
on Feb. 7, 2012 :
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 even 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.
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 of 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.
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 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.
(reviewed 9 days after purchase)