Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Mulberry Empire


Way, way back a long time ago before the Holidays (Yikes! Remember the Holidays? Now there's some historical fiction, my friend) arrived I read  The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensler and loved it. If I were an energetic enough person to make a Best Of The Year or a Top Ten List, The Northern Clemency would have been on it. Before I even finished reading it I called my local and ordered a copy of an earlier Hensler novel, The Mulberry Empire.

The Mulberry Empire is a historical novel (Surprise, right?) about "The Great Game" in general and the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839 in particular. Knowing only that, it pushes all my buttons. The Great Game referrers to the rivalry between Great Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia in the 1800's. Rivalry is a very tepid word for wars that killed thousands of soldiers and civilians and destroyed cultures but that's what happened back in the days when it was expected that powerful countries would take over foreign territories or remake the politics of other countries for their own good.

The novel's protagonist, Sir Alexander Burnes was a real person as are many of the other characters in the book. Burns was the Marco Polo/Nathan Hale of his time. As a soldier stationed in India he was sent into Afghanistan with presents for a local ruler and was then allowed to travel within the country. Very little about Afghan's interior was known to the British at the time and his information and subsequent bestselling book about his adventures filled in a lot of gaps.

I don't know enough about Afghan history to tell you how accurate Hensler's retelling of the major events depicted in the novel may or may not be. However if you like this kind of fiction then you know going in that you are not reading a textbook so do not consider yourself a scholar of the period when you turn the final page. I do know that three years after the British Soldiers entered Kabal, deposed the Amir and installed the ruler that the British government wanted to be in charge that 20,000 British Soldiers, citizens and camp followers were forced out of Afghanastan and that of that group only one person made it back to India alive.

The plot of The Mulberry Empire is global. Hensler takes us into the major governments and societies involved in leading up to this war. His best writing in the book is when he is describing these far away, long ago places and their many diverse enclaves of foreigners, soldiers and politicians within. It is then that you really see Afghanistan and empire building as the main characters. Hensler creates the time and mood of the period on an individual level and with a world view and both are fascinating. As with the very best historical fiction you are enlightened and educated when all you feel like is entertained.

What isn't as successful is the cast of thousands. Aside from a small handful of them it's too much and too under developed. They are from every single level of society and they do and say very interesting things but they are rendered more like cameos than characters. Hensler did excellent work with the large list of characters in The Northern Clemency so I have no doubt that if he had paired down the populace in Empire he would have fared better. You are barely given the opportunity to root for anyone, hiss at anyone or enjoy their company before they are hustled off the page to make room for the rest of the empire. That's disappointing given how amazing the events are in this story.

The Mulberry Empire is not for anyone in the mood for stories about Queens you never knew existed or dressmakers from the slums who rise to great heights. It is for anyone who would like to immerse themselves in a complex political situation and a world and a time that can be unfathomable, dense, horrific and exotic.

And now please excuse me while I go order more of Philip Hensler's books.


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