Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Book Review: The Formless Empire by Christopher Mott

Another review in my series of books relating to the Mongols from Pen and Sword Books.

The Formless Empire: A Short History of Diplomacy and Warfare in Central Asia by Christopher Mott.

I have read plenty of books that focus on the Mongols and I was looking forward to this book in the hope that it would give me a broader idea of the history of Central Asia and how the Mongols fit into it.

In many ways, the book was successful at that. The history is interesting and covers everything that I was looking for. It expands on a region that has a long and often tumultuous story with colourful characters and powerful empires vying for control, with varying levels of success. Starting before the Mongols and coming right through to the present, the book gives a thorough grounding in the  development of various empires as they rose and fell in the Central Asian area. There is a lot of important history in here that, certainly a western reader, will find new and fascinating.

Unfortunately, I also have a lot of problems with the book. The author strongly posits his theories of the development of the various empires and appears to be trying to instil a new description into history academia, that of "Formless Empire"! His description of the aforesaid Formless Empire is in my opinion, nothing more than that of a Nomadic Empire, or at most a Post-Nomadic Empire. I don't feel that the term Formless Empire needs any stronger position than that of the book's title, in which it feels like a generic term that in many ways capture the nature of the empires that came and went throughout the Central Asian area.

The book is also written in a very academic style. In fact, I would suggest that it was written as an academic paper that has then evolved into what should be a popular history book but falls short due to the overly complex language that the author seems to favour.

The author seems to favour certain terms, now clearly they have relevance to the subject of the book, however, when he uses the term HEGEMONY on virtually every page of the book it soon goes down the road of becoming a drinking game - how far down the page will I get before he mentions hegemony! Also terms like "rump state" crop up regularly. I assume that the language is standard in university history departments, but they need a little more explanation in popular history books.

The Conclusion of the book is also difficult. Most of the chapter is spent going over the history already covered in the main body of the book, although it does finish up with a look to the future, and the possible directions that Central Asian diplomacy could take.

I did get a lot out of the book and it is certainly a valuable addition to my library of books about this region, however, I would only recommend it if you are prepared to struggle through the overly complex language.

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