There’s something about the Silk Road that sparks off a latent dream of adventure deep inside me. One day I’d love to travel through these souks and caravanserais and to visit Samarkand, but for now I have to restrict myself to my imagination. And this wonderful book gave me ample opportunity for that. It’s a sprawling adventure, epic in every way, that crosses the breadth of the known world in the 14th century. Our heroine is Wu Johanna, the remarkable (and fictional) granddaughter of Marco Polo. Like a fairytale heroine, the orphaned Joanna escapes her wicked stepmother – and her ardent suitor – to follow her heart and heritage as a merchant on the trade routes of Asia. Dreaming of finding her grandfather, she presses further and further west with her small but loyal band of friends and family – and one very splendid horse. This is a super book, full of scents and spices and adventure, set in a most unfamiliar period of history, and with a very determined heroine at its heart. It’s a winner on all counts.
When the great Kublai Khan lies dying, the future of the Yuan dynasty lies in doubt. The Venetian adventurer Marco Polo, who has travelled the length and breadth of the Khan’s empire, is advised by his friends to leave for home before the upheaval of the succession. Marco listens; but, in leaving, he is forced to abandon his wife Shu Lin and his daughter Shu Ming. He places them in the care of his friend Wu Hai, but even this honourable man is powerless to save Shu Lin from the punitive sweep of the new Khan Temur. But he can protect Shu Ming, whom he marries to his own son Wu Li. In due course, the couple has a daughter, Johanna, whom they take with them on their own trading expeditions. And so Johanna grows up among the camels and caravans of the Silk Road, recognised by her father’s contacts whom they meet every season along their route. This childhood will stand her in good stead later when, with mother and father both dead, she decides to continue their work – en route to finding her grandfather in the fabled city of Venice.
But Johanna’s story doesn’t go to plan. When she and her friends, Shu Shao and Jaufre, run away from Cambaluc, she takes with her two things of great value. One is her father’s journal containing his routes, contacts and notes on his trading empire; and the other is the magnificent horse North Wind. The journal technically (though not morally) belongs to her father’s new wife, who married him in expectation of a trader’s fortune and will stop at nothing to recover her ‘rights’. Her factotum, the fearsome ex-samurai Gokudo, sets out on Johanna’s trail, determined to recover his mistress’s belongings – at any cost. The horse belongs, technically and morally, to Johanna’s friend (and would-be husband) Edyk. Edyk himself pursues both horse and girl, but North Wind is to prove tempting to other, more powerful and less easily evaded figures. Johanna’s story takes her across the roads of Central Asia, to the harems of Persia and the campi of Venice, and even to England, as she strives to find her own place in the world, and a life that will allow her to utilise her talents.
I bought this book completely blind. I liked the concept and I liked the cover, but I didn’t know Stabenow’s work (she’s predominantly a crime author) and I wasn’t sure if this was going to be some bodice-ripping family saga. Instead, I found an incredibly rich story full of engaging characters which, in its focus on trade and exchange, reminded me unavoidably of Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolò series. Clocking in at over 700 pages, it isn’t a light read but it’s a deeply satisfying one, and Stabenow offers a historian all they could wish, complete with an author’s note, a glossary and even a list of books for further reading. Yet for all that, the history doesn’t weigh down the story. It’s all very impressive. Excitingly, she has another novel coming out in December, Death of an Eye, set in Egypt under the Ptolemies, which promises to combine her interests in crime and historical fiction. I’ll certainly be looking out for that one.
If you’re looking for a big, meaty book for the long, dark winter evenings, give this one a go. It reminds you exactly how large the world was in the 14th century and, if you’re anything like me, it’ll leave you dreaming of adventures. It’s definitely a keeper. In fact, I can’t help wondering whether I shouldn’t have given it an even higher rating… Time, and perhaps a reread further down the line, will tell.