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.