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RAIDERS FROM THE NORTH by Alex Rutherford. Thomas Dunne Books, a Division of St. Martin’s Press. May 2010. $24.99. 448 pages. stmartins.com.
The Taj Majal. The Koh-i-Noor diamond. Conquests from north to south, east to west. One of the most sumptuous periods of history was the 300-year life of the Mughal Empire. Attempting to capture that piece of the past, Alex Rutherford (husband-wife non-fiction authors Michael and Diana Preston) begins a five-part fictional series with Raiders from the North, the story of Babur. Pulling heavily from Babur’s own writing, the book succeeds in knotting and unknotting family ties, but it falters in its representation of the man and the birth of an empire.
The family saga begins when Babur’s father accidentally falls to his death. Despite various plans to keep Babur from taking the throne, the 12-year-old prince finds himself king of Ferghana (now a part of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan). His staunchest support comes from his grandmother and mother, descendants of the legendary Genghis Khan and Timur the Lame. With their wise counsel, Babur is taught the value of patience, the necessity of planning, and the importance of recognizing who his allies are and are not.
Leaning on his bloodlines and his trusted advisor Wazir Khan, Babur learns that battles are not always won and that family members can be deceitful enemies. At his most impatient, Babur discovers that he’s not too big to fail; however, he is intelligent enough to learn lessons from his failures. As a restless youth anxious to prove he is worthy of his lineage, he alternates between ruling kingdoms and surviving as a hit-and-run raider. Eventually, he conquers Hindustan and creates the Mughal Empire.
Fans of historical fiction may find Raiders to be superficial regarding character development. The novel presents too many characters or personages—including, at times, Babur—that are as indistinct from one another as are parts of a simple tessellation. This yields characters that do not sustain the reader’s interest.
The reader also does not experience Babur truly blossoming from an inexperienced prince to the shrewd-but-compassionate ruler who ignited an important chapter of world history. Rutherford limits the heart and soul of both the story and the ruler. There is neither fire nor ice. There is no complex character struggling internally with youth and maturity or responsibility and rebellion in a world that relies on the rawest meaning of crush or be crushed.
History and setting suffer as well. Rutherford rarely allows them to be organic elements of the story, which is disappointing because the writing team specializes in historical non-fiction. Countless graphic scenes of vicious and brutal battles occur, each lengthy to the point of ennui. There are no sensuous qualities to the events of the day and only a fleeting sense of place.
Although Rutherford does not write of the Empire with the passion and vitality of Indu Sundaresan (see Trapped in the Shadows, May 2010), the book does have its positive points. The women in Babur’s immediate family are strong and well defined in their few scenes with him. His grandmother stands above all other characters, and not surprisingly, his sister succeeds her in Babur’s life. Additionally, Babur’s unwavering goal of living up to his ancestor’s legacies reminds the reader that this is no ordinary man or situation. From riches to poverty, from feasts to starvation, the knowledge that the blood of both Genghis Khan and Timur flows through his veins keeps Babur from giving up in the worst of circumstances.
Readers who demand a high literary standard in their choice of fiction may pass on Raiders from the North. However, history buffs may gravitate toward the book’s unique slant: a peek into history that, for much of the world, may be forgotten or unknown. And after all, if it weren’t for Babur, there wouldn’t be a Taj Mahal. That alone permits me to hope that Rutherford’s subsequent novel,Brothers at War, will outshine this one.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, and freelances as a copywriter.