I wasn’t sure about reading The Wolf of the Plains, mainly because I know nothing about the Mongol Empire and wasn’t sure if I would find the era interesting or not. However, I love reading historical fiction and was growing tired of European stuff, so I figured I really had nothing to lose. As it turns out, my fears were for nothing as I became totally immersed in the era and could not put this book down.
The story begins with the young Temujin being taken to his mother’s tribe to spend a year there as part of his passage into manhood, however, Temujin’s father, Yesuge, is murdered by Tartars on his way home and Temujin is called back to the Wolves tribe after only a week. Temujin’s older brother is denied his rightful place as khan and the family are cast out onto the plains to fend for themselves with winter approaching. With food scarce, they must all pull together to ensure their survival but Temujin is forced to make some painful decisions.
Against the odds, the small family survive their ordeal and after four years, the Wolves return to the area, taking Temujin prisoner. Temujin manages to escape, thanks to the loyalty of some of his father’s former bondsmen, but he is determined to get his revenge against the Tartars and the man who stole his father’s tribe. Surrounded by outcasts, Temujin gathers them all to him and begins his quest to unite the Mongols into one great nation.
Although we start with Temujin as a child, everything he endures during his youth all contributes towards making him into the great man he will become. Although not much is known about Temujin’s younger years, Iggulden keeps as close to historical fact as possible while embellishing in an entirely plausible way. Temujin and the rest of the characters are brought to life beautifully and I really grew to admire Temujin despite his flaws.
My only complaint would be the lack of depth with the female characters who really don’t get much of a voice. While Temujin’s mother, Hoelun, is a periphery character for the most part, she does come in to her own once the family are outcast as the plot requires it, but then she fades back into the background. The only other female to get any attention is Temujin’s wife, Borte, who keeps herself unattractive so no one will want to marry her, however there isn’t enough focus on her relationship with Temujin so it wasn’t clear why she was willing to change her mind for him. Borte disappears from the narrative until Temujin reaches the stage where he is able to claim her as his wife and she is eventually kidnapped by a band of Tartars. The real Borte was kidnapped for a longer period which threw the paternity of Temujin’s eldest son into doubt but the book confuses things by having Borte tell her husband she believes she is with child long before the kidnap.
Nevertheless, the writing is fantastic and Iggulden manages to impart a great deal of knowledge without making the narration dry. The time jumps are done logically and you barely notice them as they happen but Temujin is only starting to come into his own when we have to say goodbye. The era was a savage one so you expect a lot of gore but none of it is done in a gratuitous way. I learned a lot about the Mongolian way of life and came to recognise a lot of their customs as being similar to the Native Americans. For some reason, I believed the Mongolians were ethnically linked to China, possibly due to the country’s location, so I was bit shocked to learn the Mongolians themselves believe they are descended from Native Americans who crossed over the Bering Strait. As you become familiar with the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongolians, you can certainly understand why they have this belief as the two cultures are very similar.