Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Friday, September 20, 2013

"Silk Road" by Colin Falconer - A Review

“Silk Road” by Colin Falconer is well named because the silk road itself is the most complex, vivid and well-drawn character of the book.  Falconer clearly did his research about the route itself – its changing geography and climates, and the diverse and fascinating people, who lived along it during the 13th century.  His descriptions of the route itself are vivid, informative and evocative, as are his meticulous and convincing portrayals of Mongolian culture, life-style and politics in this period.  
Indeed, Falconer does an outstanding job of giving the reader insight into the Mongolian mentality and ethos without romanticizing it.  He is brutally honest about the repulsive excesses – of both drink and violence – without being self-satisfied or smug.  All in all, I felt he provided a balanced and nuanced picture of this, for us, alien society.  Likewise, his description of how the women’s feet were crushed and bound in China is one of the most brutally honest descriptions I have ever read. 
 Unfortunately, Falconer does not match his very impressive knowledge of the Mongols and the topography of Asia with equal knowledge and understanding of the Christian world in the 13th century.  He depicts France and Provence of the 13th century as if he were describing Norsemen half a millennia earlier – huddling around smoking fires and wearing furs! Really? St. Louis? The man who commissioned St. Chapelle? The popes that built the palaces in Poitiers and Avignon? Another jarring example of his ignorance of French society is Falconer’s allegation that French women could not inherit property. Try telling that to Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Falconer appears not to have read Joinville’s account of the St. Louis’ crusade, or he would know King Louis could not command his Queen to so much as pay his ransom! He could ask it, not command it.  Finally, allow me a third example: Falconer repeatedly claims that Westerners did not bathe frequently and some were “afraid” to do so.  Absurd! Bathing is described in medieval books, depicted in medieval manuscripts and evidenced by archeology.  While the wealthy had their own baths, the poor went to bath-houses and in the Holy Roman Empire tips were called “bath money” not “drinking money.”  It was only after the Reformation – and the spread of a strict morality that  saw bath houses as hotbeds of sin -- that hygiene deteriorated dramatically in European cities.  Given the fact that much of the dynamic of “Silk Road” rests on comparisons between “the West” and the cultures of the East, this profound ignorance of Western culture in the period of the novel (13th century) destroys the power and impact of Falconer’s alleged comparisons.  
Similarly, I found Falconer’s Mongol characters vivid and convincing. I liked his heroine Khetelun and her father very much.  They came to life for me in all their complexity and contradictions.  Kubilai and Miao-yen are likewise complex and compelling characters.  But Falconer fails miserably in making William a believable character.  William remains a caricature of heartless bigotry. Furthermore, he is so monotone as to be uninteresting. I kept hoping for some nuance, some change, some insight, but he remained flat, predictable and boring.  Josseran eventually takes on some contours, but most of the book he is simply a vehicle for criticizing “Western” civilization – not as it was but as Falconer in his ignorance imagines it was.  He is obsessed with his sexuality and so in place of real dialectic with different cultures and religions, with have shadow-boxing.
The structure of “Silk Road” had the potential to offer provocative challenges to our understanding of Christianity, but it fell flat because the “Christianity” of this book is an empty façade, only superficially related to the religion itself.  Certainly there were bigots and hypocrites, who called themselves Christians and even preached Christianity, but if this book were to seriously examine the merits of the various cultures and theologies, it would have to portray not the counterfeit but the genuine “coin” of all the religions. It would have to discuss the religion itself – not create a straw man of sheer bigotry. 
At times I had the impression that Falconer genuinely hated Christianity, but in the end I decided he simply shied away for serious, theological debate.  It was easier to describe the superficial differences of simplistic characters than explore the depths of complex theologies.
In short, it’s not a bad book if you want to learn more about the Mongols in the second generation after Genghis Khan, but beware of the misinformation about Medieval Europe and don’t expect a genuine discussion of the theological differences between the great religions of the period.

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