02 March, 2012

Empire of the Moghul: Raiders from the North, by Alex Rutherford. Book review.

Headline 2010. ISBN 0-7553-5654-6. 496 pages. Review copy supplied by publisher.

Raiders from the North is set in what is now Central Asia and northern India in 1494-1530, and follows the career of Babur, first of the Moghul Emperors. Most of the main characters are historical figures, including Babur, his mother Kutlugh Nigar, grandmother Esan Dawlat, sister Khanzada and son Humayun, Shaibani Khan of the Uzbeks and Shah Ismail of Persia. Babur’s military commander Wazir Khan, adviser Baisanghar and friend Baburi are based on historical figures.

Babur is only twelve years old when his father, ruler of the small mountainous kingdom of Ferghana in Central Asia, is killed in a freak accident. With the help of his wily grandmother Esan Dawlat and loyal commander Wazir Khan, Babur is able to claim his inheritance and is fired with ambition to build an empire to equal or exceed that of his mighty ancestor Timur (Tamburlaine). But the plots by ambitious relatives and grasping viziers start almost immediately, not to mention external threats from the ruthless Uzbek warlord Shaibani Khan and the powerful Shah Ismail of Persia, both of whom have territorial ambitions in central Asia. If Babur is even to survive, let alone found an empire, he will need all the cunning and military skill he can muster.

Raiders from the North is the first in a planned series of five novels about the six Moghul emperors, who ruled a vast empire based in what is now northern India in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The Moghul dynasty has become a byword for luxury, power and unimaginable riches, and has given rise to modern phrases such as ‘movie mogul’. Babur’s rise from precarious ruler of a small mountain kingdom to founder of a great empire, via battle, treachery and a spell as a landless bandit, is the stuff of legend. One could hardly ask for a more dramatic or exotic setting for historical fiction.

So I was surprised to find that Raiders of the North seemed somewhat ‘flat’. Perhaps I had set my expectations too high given the drama of the underlying history. The novel is apparently based largely on Babur’s autobiography, the Baburnama, and that may be part of the explanation, as I felt the novel read like a mildly fictionalised biography. Babur was a pleasant enough central character, but he always seemed distant. I always felt I was reading about him, rather than being drawn into his story. Part of this may be the episodic structure, which can feel rather repetitive – battle, victory, treachery, battle, defeat, battle – as poor Babur slides up and down the snakes and ladders of ambition, frequently ending up almost back at square one. No doubt this reflects the history; the career of a successful warlord attempting to conquer a region of fractious independent tribes is likely to feature a lot of battle, victory, defeat and treachery in a series of successes and setbacks. Sometimes a pattern like this can capture my imagination (Nigel Tranter’s Robert Bruce trilogy comes to mind), but not so much in this case. Another contributory factor may be the clumsy dialogue. When characters in the middle of a desperate winter campaign say things like,

“Let’s pause under cover of these trees and eat some of the dried meat we still have in our saddlebags while we send some scouts ahead”
it doesn’t do a lot for creating a sense of tension and urgency, at least not for me. Overall, the style reminded me of Tim Severin’s Viking novel and Alison Weir’s novel about Lady Jane Grey, Innocent Traitor. It’s interesting that both of these were novels written by established authors of non-fiction, and it turns out that ‘Alex Rutherford’ is the pen name for a husband-and-wife team of established non-fiction authors. Luckily, the historical setting of the Moghul Empire is interesting in its own right, so the flat style matters less than it might have done with less exotic subject matter. A straight biography of Babur would probably be a good read; I may see if I can find one.

A map at the front is invaluable for following Babur’s progress through his far-flung territories. A useful Historical Note at the back of the book summarises the underlying history and historical characters, and a list of endnotes organised by page number gives the historical background to specific incidents. Ironically, the Historical Note, where the author(s?) describe travelling in Central Asia to research the novel, comes to life more vividly than much of the text.

Mildly fictionalised biography of Babur, first of the Moghul emperors in fifteenth/sixteenth-century India and Central Asia.


Annis said...

I read this some time ago and agree completely. I was intrigued by the concept of a series set around the Moghul Dynasty but found myself becoming increasingly bored as the story trundled turgidly along. The Severin comparison is an apt one- I never finished "Riders of the North", and despite a couple of goes at it, I never finished "Viking" either! It doesn't matter how exciting the subject is, whether or not a novel works for the reader is all in the storyteller's art...or lack of it, as the case may be :)

Rick said...

I wonder if the authors were, in part, struggling with the 'ethics' of writing fiction about a historical person about whom a good deal is known. It would be hard to write vivid characterization if you're constantly second-guessing yourself, 'was he really like that.'

The quandary exists in principle for people about whom little is known, but less so in practice.

That said, clunker dialogue is a problem almost entirely separate from historicity. Babur's actual words on that occasion were surely not recorded, and would probably have been in a dialect of Farsi anyway.

Carla said...

Annis - that's very interesting that you thought the same and it isn't just me. I haven't figured out why it was a lifeless read, despite all the dramatic events. I think the dialogue has a lot to do with it. Characters so often come to life because of the things they say, at least for me. It may be significant that dialogue is one thing that doesn't really come into non-fiction writing. Non-fiction has to structure a narrative, describe events, describe character to some extent, speculate on gaps in the record, all of which have something in common with fiction, but non-fiction doesn't generally create dialogue.
Did you try any of the others in the series? I've dipped into the second one and it seems rather similar in style.

Rick - it certainly can be a tricky ethical problem, thinking 'am I being fair to X'. (Kipling described it vividly in 'The Last of the Stories', which always makes me shudder, and he was dealing with entirely fictional characters; it's redoubled in spades with historical figures). Whether it was an issue for the authors here, only they could say.

The line of dialogue isn't from Babur, it's from a senior commander, but it still goes 'clunk', at least for me. It's unlikely that a band of near-outlaws campaigning in harsh mountain country in winter would have a stenographer recording their every utterance, so dialogue should be a good candidate for fictional treatment.

Annis said...

I had a similar problem with Ross Laidlaw's biographical novel, "Theoderic" (about the 5th century Germanic ruler, Theoderic the Great). Again, it was a great subject and should have made for an exciting novel. It just never came to life, though, and I kept looking in vain through the screen of historical detail for something of the complex, vital man Theoderic must have been. In my opinion it would have been better marketed as a non-fiction narrative biography, and maybe "Riders of the North" would have, too. I 'm afraid I couldn't get up enough interest to tackle others in the "Moghul Dynasty" series, Carla.

Rick has a good point about authors feeling cramped by working with actual historical figures and needing to “get it right”. However, I have read plenty of stories not involving real people which also took a dramatic subject and turned it into a flat, tedious story with one-dimensional characters.

The key to reader involvement is engagement with a story’s characters and fluent, credible dialogue certainly plays a significant part in facilitating that. The art of storytelling can't be overestimated in giving a story that vital spark that lights the reader's imagination- an author can be very knowledgeable about an subject and still turn out a turgid story on that same subject, quite often because he/she gets bogged down in detail rather than focusing on historical sensibility. Research is important, but as Rosemary Sutcliff once said, ”The terrible temptation is to try and use everything you’ve found out in the research. That can be absolutely fatal, because you really only need to use about a tenth. It’s rather like an iceberg . . . It has to be there, because it gives you the freedom of the period. But you don’t use it.”

Anonymous said...

That dialogue line is like a fat kid in a baseball cap standing outside Mickey D's saying, "Let's get a Big Mac, the one with the melted cheese and which comes in a yellow polystyrene box."

Carla said...

Annis - What a shame, Theoderic the Great should be a terrific subject for a novel. Non-fiction biography differs markedly from fiction in that it's supposed to distinguish clearly between evidence and speculation (or, more precisely, I wish it would; not all does), whereas fiction has the freedom to invent to fill in gaps. Not making full use of that freedom to tell an engaging story seems to me to fall uncomfortably between two stools. It reminds me of 'drama-documentaries' - you know, those TV programmes that have an annoying habit of being neither documented nor dramatic. I wonder if the authors would have preferred to write a biography? Maybe they will one day.

Yes, I agree; entirely fictional characters and events are not immune from tedium. (Though I should add the usual caveat that excitement/drama/ interest is subjective, and what one person finds dull someone else may find thrilling). It isn't necessarily to do with too much knowledge, either; I have read very dull novels with apparently very little knowledge of the historical setting at all. They always bring to mind a quote from one of the Narnia books, "...duller than the truest history ever written, and less true than the most exciting adventure story...". The storytelling spark, whatever it is, seems to be quite independent of knowledge.

I think Rosemary Sutcliff does use all the research, including the iceberg part. As she says, it gives her the freedom of the period (lovely phrase), so it is being used, it just isn't seen on the surface - just as the tip of the iceberg wouldn't be there (or at any rate would behave differently) if the rest of it wasn't there.

Anonymous - hello and welcome. Yes, it is rather a clunky line of dialogue. Interestingly, your example immediately gave me a mental image of a character with possible social adjustment or communication problems, which could potentially be developed into a neat form of characterisation. It didn't seem to be used that way in the book, though.

Annis said...

The traditional narrative biography used to fill the gap between fiction and non-fiction quite nicely -
this was a biography that read like a story rather than a dry collection of facts and deeds, and often did speculate about what characters might have thought or felt. Authors like Harold Lamb specialized in this style, which made history much more interesting.

Unfortunately these seem to have gone by the board, leaving authors having to make a choice between fiction or straight non-fiction of the more scholarly sort which sticks strictly to the facts (though I've noticed that sometimes these facts are fairly dodgy as far as provenance goes:) I'm guessing that fiction is more likely to make money (authors may disagree) which is why something like Laislaw's "Theoderic" was marketed as such. (He even added copious footnotes- a real killer in a novel!)

Carla said...

Raiders from the North had a few endnotes about particular incidents. I quite liked that, although there was not much detail (space constraints, maybe). I've occasionally seen footnotes in e-books, but not as far as I can remember in a hard copy novel.

Rick said...

Anon's dorky kid does in fact seem more vividly characterized than Babur's officer!

Nice point that non-fiction gives no real training in dialogue. Not true in earlier days - think of Thucydides' made-up speeches - but true in modern times.

The quoted passage does seems like 'showing your work.' The characters didn't need to be told that they had dried meat in their saddlebags!

Has Blogger eliminated the option to get comments by email? Google seems to have decided not only to be evil after all, but stupid to boot.

Rick said...

Forgot to add that Theoderic does indeed sound like a great subject for historical fiction!

Carla said...

Yes, indeed - that may reflect the familiarity of the context. With a modern setting, readers already have a fair idea of the likely things a kid would say at a burger bar, so even a subtle divergence from that has the potential for showing something about the character. I did briefly wonder if there was going to be something along those lines with the cavalry commander, but no.

Good point about classical historians and their invented speeches. It was mostly set-piece oratory though, wasn't it, not dialogue as such? Tacitus invents stirring battlefield speeches for Boudica and one for Calgacus, but I can't bring to mind him inventing a conversation between, say, Boudica and her daughters or Calgacus and his senior commanders. Yet that sort of dialogue is the kind that makes characters real, at least for me.

I think you may have said yourself on one of these threads that Theoderic would be a good subject for historical fiction. Maybe someone else will have a go.

Gabriele C. said...

Don't look at me re. Theoderic, I have more plotbunnies than I can juggle already. ;)

Well, if that novel is like the Severin ones, I'll give it a pass. Never finished Severin's first. Try Robert Low if you want cool Vikings and battles.

Carla said...

Gabriele - It reminded me of Tim Severin's Viking novel, and Annis said the same (above), so it isn't just me. I'm working my way through Robert Low's Oathsworn series (two reviewed here so far) and am impressed; he manages to capture some of the flavour of the sagas, and that takes some doing.

Rick said...

True that earlier historians had set-piece speeches, not *dialogue*. (And you are correct about the role it plays in characterization.)

Probably someone has written a Theoderic novel at some point, but not recently or successfully enough to come to our attention.

Carla said...

I expect if there was another Theoderic novel besides the Ross Laidlaw one, that Annis would know about it :-)