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Compelling and unusual - a great read

The Tiger Queens - Stephanie  Thornton

Tiger Queens describes the lives of several of the women intimately involved with the early years of the Mongol empire, beginning with Borte Khatun, chief wife of Genghis Khan. It is a long book, but Stephanie has - wisely, in my view - chosen to keep it as a single volume rather than divide it into separate pieces. The historical background is provided by a near-contemporary written source, which Stephanie has followed closely but creatively.


There are four main sections to the book, each of which closely follows one of the women. This gives an effective way to see them all both from inside and outside. Relationships are at the heart of the book, and the culture, running the whole gamut of intimacy and distance. The main focus throughout is on the women, and the ways in which they upheld one another and fashioned a cohesive core to the empire at times when its rapid expansion, and the inherent violence of its men, threatened to split it apart. Mongol men are seen through their women's eyes rather than directly.


Three of the figures chosen are members of the Mongol clans by birth, while the fourth is introduced as a Moslem captive from Nishapur, from what is now called Iran. This should have given an interesting balance to the work, but in fact I enjoyed the other three sections more. The descriptions of their blend of domesticity and spirituality were compelling in a more sustained way. The biggest surprise of the Nishapur section was Stephanie's use of Fitzgerald's florid 19th century translation of Omar Khayyam. Through most of the book she is careful to keep culturally specific descriptions of places, artefacts, and so on, and so the sudden appearance of these ornate phrases was disorienting. Personally I would have preferred to see a more faithful and accurate translation, of which a number are available. Other readers will not mind this.


Stephanie writes very beautifully about loss, and the mutual support these women gave one another in difficult, often tragic, times. The scene in which Borte Khatun dies, also in the Nishapur section, is profoundly moving - "well-written" does not do justice to the quality here.


I can thoroughly recommend Tiger Queens, and have no hesitation in giving 5* to it. The book is unusual in subject matter and presentation, and longer than the average novel, but well worth investing the time.