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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-07-31 18:17
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World - Peter Frankopan

Slight spoilers in this review, I know a few of you want to read it so I tried to keep it minimal. For a book that attempts to address thousands of years of human history in 521 pages, it does a solid job. I loved the first 400 pages or so, It is written in a gripping way that is often missing in non fiction. I learnt a lot about the world and I would have given it five stars had its sections on the holocaust, the nazis and American foreign policy in the middle east not been limited.


It descends towards the end into page upon page of America shaming, essentially blaming it entirely for taking on Britain's imperial mantle in the middle east and destabilizing it further during the cold war. I agree that the US is responsible in part for destabilizing some countries in the region and that this has led to a rise in ultra nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism, but the way this is written it is almost as though it's an opinion piece at times. It feels like Frankopan has decided the US is to blame entirely and looks for evidence to back up his claims, rather than going in with an objective outlook and trying to assess the evidence without bias.


But my criticisms of the later sections of the book are not to say it is also not largely interesting. I learnt things about weapon sales and oil that I previously had no knowledge of and my understanding of countries such as Iran and Iraq has improved as a result. Sections on Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden were equally enlightening. 


Where the book really shines is in its early history of the formation of the east, sections on the viking Rus, the Islamic golden age, the slave trade and the mongols are fascinating. I had no idea that the word slaves comes from the slavs as they were heavy victims of Viking enslavement. I had no idea the mongols spread further after the death of Genghis Khan and were largely responsible for rebuilding areas they had pillaged. I even had no idea that Islam was almost spread into Europe as a dominant religion at its height, only to be repelled in France and knocked back by Christendom.


I went for a drink with a friend yesterday and he said something along the lines of, "I don't understand anyone who doesn't find history interesting." I have to say when I read a book like this one filled from the start to the end with dramatic feats, brutal politics, vast empires and powerful individuals it is hard to see how people can so easily dismiss history. I have only ever learnt from my interest in history, it has only served to increase my knowledge of the world around me and to help me make sense of what is going on in the world and for that reason, books like this that are filled with so many insights should be a must read for everyone. 


I'll leave this with my favourite quote in the book. 'Britain's politicians and diplomats were not made of the same stuff as the Francis Drakes and the other magnificent adventurers who created the empire; in fact, they are the tired sons of a long line of rich men, and they will lose their empire.' - Mussolini to his foreign minister Count Ciano.

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review 2013-02-26 00:00
Mongols, Huns & Vikings - Hugh Kennedy This should actually be titled "Mongols, Huns, Arabs, Turks & Vikings". To be even more accurate, it should be titled "Random Dudes in History Who Were Like Totally Badass, Fuck Yeah".

I'm not quite sure who this books is meant for. It almost (but not quite) a children's book, with nice, simply told stories about said invasions - theres really more information on the Wikipedia page - and told in a rather romantic way. Much "...as they were driven by the iron bonds of the camaraderie of the fighting men..." or "...being the embodiment of the lone horseman, alone, in the desert, with only his camel..." (really.) There is much recounting of stories and anecdotes then admitted, "sadly", to be untrue. (Including Viking horned helmets,) thought the focus is more on military tactics, organization and technology, and less on historical narrative.

It's also very lavishly and pretty randomly illustrated. Pretty landscape photos of Russian snow, Mongolia grass, Arabian sand, etc. Attila the Hun looking hideous on a 19th c. German meat-extract advertisement. Attila the Hun looking like a total cutie in some 18th C. portrait. Clunky 3D diagrams of various battles. Maps with lots and lots of arrows. Pictures of rusty swords, ruined castles, old armour. Treasure troves, longships, horses, camels, elephants and a cheetah. Diagrams of composite bows and trebuchets. What more do you need, really?

Theres some kind of thesis about the exceptionality of nomadism, or something, but really exists for about four sentences in the pro- and epilogue. At first I wasn't really sure why I was reading this, but then I realized that it was really speaking to that piece of my soul which is a gleefully savage grubby twelve year old boy who would really like to be falling out of trees and getting into fights and breaking things and setting them on fire just to see what would happen, and if you have no such corner in your soul, then I can't help you. By the time I was done, I was only sorry there was no chapter on Ninjas, and possibly cowboys.

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