Years ago, my book club read Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford. The main thing that I remember about the book is the astonishment I felt at all that had happened as part of the Mongol conquest, and how little I had known about it. The novel The Sky Worshipers by F. M. Deemyad takes us back to the days of Genghis Khan and his descendants, and as the author takes us into that world, she creates a lasting impression of what things might have been like.
The novel begins in 1398 Karakorum, the Mongol capital, with the discovery of a journal, in which three different women chronical, each in her own way, their experience and understanding of what was happening with the Mongol empire and the lands it had conquered and annexed. The three women were each royalty in their conquered lands, and each was forcibly taken and brought to live with the Mongol leaders. The first, Chaka, from China, becomes the wife of Genghis Khan himself. The second, Reyhan, is from Persia, and becomes the wife of Genghis’s son, and the third, Krisztina, is from Poland, and becomes the wife of Genghis’s grandson.
Each of the three women writes in secret, hoping to tell a truer tale of what is happening than that which will be written by the historians forced by the Khans to write a positive portrayal of their battle strategies and how they manage their new lands. The voice and character of each of the three women is distinct, with Reyhan even writing her section in the form of tales. Although each tries in her own way, the three women must ultimately accept that they can do little to affect the decisions of the Mongol leaders. Their writing offers the women solace in addition to the chance to at least reveal something of the authentic history.
Deemyad skillfully weaves the excerpts from the journal with narration about some of what is happening that is not described by the women. She does not shy away from the atrocities, but neither does she linger on them. We see not only the ruthlessness of the Mongol invaders, but also the brilliance of their tactics. We see not only the manner in which populations who resist are crushed, but also their tolerance of other religions.
The characters are multidimensional, and Deemyad even tries to explain in part Genghis’s need for never-ending conquest and complete loyalty, by describing a childhood in which Genghis and his family were cast out and abandoned by his extended family. The women are victims, yes, but in their day-to-day lives, they also have moments of influence and pleasure.
Interestingly, Deemyad portrays all three women as actually caring about their husbands to varying degrees. Each of them at times is treated well, although they are not free to leave, and their lives are totally dictated. Deemyad even highlights the factors which might make a woman, for example, see the Mongols as dashing warriors. Still, the care of the men was neither lasting nor consistent, and I found this aspect of the story an interesting choice on Deemyad’s part.
All in all, this is a fascinating take on a little-understood period of history.
Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her next novel, The Map Colorist, comes out in September, 2023.