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The Judas Blossom cover

The Judas Blossom by Stephen Aryan

(Angry Robot Books, 2023)

Reviewed by Ksenia Shcherbino

Even without any embellishments thirteenth century Mongol conquest of Persia is as close to fantasy as history can be. Not only this period (and this region) is conspicuously absent from Europocentric historiography and thus allows for certain fantasies and liberties (think Marco Polo), the deeply embedded fear of nomadic invasion seems to run deep in our blood centuries after Genghis Khan’s empire came to end, and Baghdad and Damask are the source of fairy tale ever since A Thousand and One Nights, or the Arabian Nights found its way into European imagination. So, Stephen Aryan has very interesting sources for his historical fantasy, and he uses them well.

The Judas Blossom is the first part of a trilogy that shows Persian rebels fighting against the Mongol invaders. Aryan doesn’t gloss over historical truth—Mongol invasion was nasty, gory, terrifying. He doesn’t shy away from the most vicious battles and seems to be at ease with dense historical material. It is not for the faint-hearted, and there is drive and force in the way he works with it. There is little fantasy, at least in the first book, far less than in Ken Liu’s The Dandelion Dynasty that was also to a certain extent inspired by the Mongols, and whatever magic there is, is neither explained nor developed in full.

A complex weaving of different plotlines makes characters cross paths and blend effortlessly into a bigger narrative that cannot be told from one perspective. We see it unfolding through various narrators: Hulagu khan, ruler of the Ilkhanate, a visionary who wants to bring to completion his grandfather Genghis Khan’s dream about spreading Pax Mongolica and conquering the whole world. As any visionary he doesn’t really care about the cost of his dreams.

Temujin, his younger son who has neither heart nor strength for battle and thus is struggling to gain this father’s approval. He is given one last chance to prove himself—and accidentally stumbles upon something that will change his life and the fate of the empire.

Kokochin, the Blue Princess, one of his concubines; a Mongol by birth yet whose family was murdered by Hulagu Khan’s brother, who doesn’t fit in, but is determined to find something to live for.

Kaivon, the last surviving Persian general who is serving Hulagu khan in the hope of destroying the Mongols from within.

All of them seem to need a voice of their own to tell their story, to give shape and colour to the Mongol empire—this melting pot of cultures, religions and politics. And that’s where it didn’t quite work for me. All of them felt one-dimensional and scripted, driven by purpose, but without much psychological depth or change. The language felt clunky, and dialogues truncated; that made it even more difficult to connect to any of the characters as they all seemed to speak in the same way. In one of his interviews, Stephen Aryan mentions that he didn’t put any of himself into the characters, and I could feel his distance.

Surprisingly, the most appealing to me was the visionary Hulagu—his chilling cruelty is not a conscious choice, but a means to achieve his goal. He doesn’t enjoy violence, but it comes natural to him, due to his temperament, his culture, and his dream. His awkward relationship with his sons, his disappointment at his youngest son’s lack of military prowess, his tired acceptance of his brothers’ intrigues and his wives’ demands, his rage when things don’t go the way he wants, and later on his undisguised fear at facing something he cannot comprehend, makes him believable and almost likeable. Were it not for all the blood he casually sheds, of course.

The least psychologically plausible (although the one I had highest hopes for in the beginning) was the Blue Princess Kokochin as her arc seems to be taken straight from a martial arts movie with bad special effects. She felt the least authentic to me, and her character development, strained. Yet it is just the beginning of the trilogy, and I feel that the pace is picking up and there are more questions than answers at this stage. Would Aryan chose fantasy over history? I am looking forward to finding it out.

Review from BSFA Review 23 - Download your copy here.


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