My sister Bryn Hammond has now published the second volume of her novel Amgalant, titled Tribal Brawls. And it is awesome. But you knew I was going to say that, didn't you? Because this is My Favourite Book Ever, and I find that it just gets better and better.
To recap: Amgalant is a retelling in (eventually) three volumes of The Secret History of the Mongols, the story of the man we know today as Genghis Khan, but whom we meet as Temujin.
This second volume continues with all the strengths of the first. It brings to vivid life this centuries-old story, this far-away country, and these fascinating people. With deft yet deep-delving touches it evokes their lives, their beliefs, their ways of thinking. It is full of respect and affection for the tribes, and yet it does not flinch from their realities. And it is full of the most wonderful humour.
At the end of The Old Ideal, young Temujin had just been named Khan. Tribal Brawls picks up the story immediately:
The first thing Temujin did when he came out of his clan meet was send an explanation to Jamuqa.
Toghrul, the Hirai khan - not to mention Jamuqa's uncle and Yesugei's anda - publically supports Temujin in ringing terms so apt for this oral culture:
The Mongols have been twenty years without a khan. Now is he your warm coat against the winter; unwrap him not. Now is he your neck-scarf of fur; discard him not.
And of course Temujin counts on having his anda, his soul-brother Jamuqa at his side, just as his stalwart wife Borte stands by him. But all goes pear-shaped, and Temujin finds himself facing the master tactitian Jamuqa in battle.
And so it goes. As might be understood from the title, there are battles a-plenty in this volume - and frankly, they are all of great interest. Each time we are clear about who's involved, and what's at stake, the necessary detail of terrain and armaments, strengths and weaknesses. But more than that, the tale of each is told in a different style, or with a different focus. No battle is other than unique.
In between are beautifully drawn set-pieces, such as when Temujin and his crew try to mend matters with Sacha Chief and the Jorkimes. Instead, matters descend into a drunken stand-off, with the handsomest of Temujin's brothers put in charge of the giddy old Jorkimes aunts whom Temujin is holding hostage.
He was a young singer, with a pale forelock in a curl, storm-grey eyes and the most fortunate face of the brothers; he flattered them and grew roguish; the tipsy Qorijin and Qo’orchin in their tilting hats emitted screams, but not for help.
The attempt at peace-making goes pear-shaped, too, but with a great deal of laughter along the way.
And then there are the moments when a message conveyed from Jamuqa in self-exile will touch Temujin or old Toghrul to the quick. Wells of emotion are tapped with a clarity that cannot fail to move you. Meanwhile, Temujin possesses exactly the right kind of fatherly pride.
None of his sons were perfect, though roughly five of the daughters were.
The Arthurian echoes now include the love and the tensions between Temujin, Jamuqa, and Borte. Temujin loves the other two deeply and truly, and they him, but even those relationships seem impossible to get right.
One aspect of the whole that is always perfect, though, is the magnificent Hoelun, truly incredible enough to be the whetstone for Temujin, for Tchingis Khan.
Grey and gnarled, she kept the rags of beauty and that sheer force of character that Temujin had whet himself against as a youngster.
And the whole is told in the most amazing language, with echoes from Shakespeare or from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or whatever is most apt to convey to us today what these people meant then. Or simply Bryn's own wonderful choices of words.
I think that is his scouringly honest habit of mind.
Isn't 'scouringly' just exquisite…? The latter parts of this book contain the most perfectly sublime prose I have ever read.
If you think I might be even half-right and suspect that you might like Tribal Brawls, too, you can sample a fifth of it for free on Smashwords. I suspect you might find yourself wanting to devour the rest.
(reviewed 23 days after purchase)