Silk Road by Colin Falconer

Rating 7.0/10
Delusion and honour walk hand in hand amongst the pages.

The year is 1260A.D. and Colin Falconer's "Silk Road" commences at a key moment in Mongol history. News of the death of Mongke Khan in August 1259 reaches Qaidu, Khan of the Tatars living in the Fergana Valley. Against the shifting politics of the Mongolian Empire we are introduced to his wilful, headstrong and spirited daughter, Khutelun, whom we meet besting an over-confident suitor, Jubei, in a race to catch a goat.

A medieval world away the gruff and fiery-haired, Josseran Sarrazini, is being commissioned by Thomas Berard, Templar Grand Master at Acre to chaperone one William of Augsburg to convert the Great Khan to Christianity. Gerard has tasked Josserain with his own mission – to secure an alliance with the Tatar against the Saracen. This is no Fellowship of the Ring, as the pair instantly dislike each other. William is a zealous and overly pious Dominican friar with a catchall phrase of "Deus le volt". Hardship, suffering and intolerance are his way to Heaven. After William refuses to indulge in what he deems a pagan rite of superstition that leads to bad luck for the caravanserai on its way to Qaraqorum, Josserain remarks "You may be a pious man, Brother William, but you are not a wise one".

After reaching Khan Hulegu and learning of the death of Mongke Khan, the reader is taken East across the Roof of the World to Quoquorum. A strange group to meet the new Khan of Khans: an uncompromising friar, a dependable, but suffering a crisis of faith, Templar, a fiery and skilled Tatar princess and a one-eyed camel driver.

When they are intercepted and split up by those loyal to Khubilai under the leadership of Sartaq, Josseran and Williams are taken to Shang-Tu (Xanadu) to meet the Khan of Khans whose bored drunken first encounter does little to enamour the ever-deluded and demanding William. Our "intransigent, odiferous, hirsute and scowling" cleric finds himself a purpose in converting the Nestorians back to the true faith of the Pope yet is confounded by Mar Salah who heads the Nestorians in Xanadu. Instructions to teach one of Khubilai's daughters, Miao-Yen, give each culture the chance to study the other. The fortuitous death of Mar Salah allows William the opportunity he needs to "persuade the Khagan to convert to Christ". The ensuing debate permits him to pits his theological wits against some of the finest minds of Xanadu winning Khubilai over. Yet, as Josseran senses with accurate foreboding, "the conversion of the Son of Heaven, Ruler of Rulers, Khan of Khans of all the Tatars, now seemed to him… too simple."

Josseran has succeeded in his mission, in the affairs of diplomacy and men. William has failed in his. The return journey is covered much faster than in the opening three hundred pages, what is almost a précis of Qaida's Tatars recapturing Josseran, his attempt at besting Khutelun, finding William again and the civil war amongst the Khans. By the end of the book we are travelled full length on the Silk Road and the dying William who opens the prologue of the novel with his confession finally reveals himself as the most corrupt of men. His heinous crime is revealed and we are left with nothing but contempt for this misogynist and nothing but admiration for Josserain who overcomes his own demons. A man whose plunge into a icy river with his wounded love takes him away from the decay of his life and to a somehow more nobler world.

Falconer's descriptive narrative is exquisite at times. Each short chapter opens with a flowing brush of words that paint precisely, yet mellifluously, in a manner that is almost poetic. There are many examples as we move from the angry, dirty hubbub of Acre eastwards to the Pavilion of Great Harmony. The arrival at the latter sings to us:

"After the squalor of the streets this was a sanctuary; there were flagged courts and soaring pagodas with upturned eaves and tiles of lacquered bamboo of peacock blue and jade green, all glazed so that they shone like glass in the sun… The Pavilion of Great Harmony loomed before them on a vast earthen platform, perhaps ten rods wide and as much as thirty rods long. it was stupefying it its symmetry and size. Lacquered vermillion pillars supported the trifle room. Golden dragons and serpents coiled up the pillars and writhed along the eaves high above. The scudding white clouds made it appear that the dragons themselves were in motion, their golden-scaled wings bearing them aloft."

Throughout the novel, as Falconer himself unwittingly puts it, comes "A riot of colour, a scene of impossible splendour to stir the soul and dazzle the eyes." This is not to say we don't suffer from a repetition of adjective at times. The description of Tedukai's yurt uses the word "felt" no less than six times in one page. Such overuse jars heavily, unfortunately. I was sagely advised that after writing a novel go back over it twice, three times and strip out the adjectives. Falconer would be advised to do this at least once; simply to remove the discordant notes amongst the melodies he builds. Ironically, it is the quality of his descriptive narrative that enhances the frown of the reader at some of the repetition.

Nevertheless, this is a story that keeps the reader moving with our polarised characters ever eastwards. The grand schemes of politicking and war are lost amongst the narrative of those who would strive to find peace in both themselves and the world around. Delusion and honour walk hand in hand amongst the pages but we are satisfied with the conclusion, satiated in powerful descriptions, pleased with the fates of all.

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