Considering we're talking about one of the most sadistic tyrants of the early 15th century, I really expected to enjoy Pyramid of Skulls: A Novel of Timur, Warrior and Emperor more than I did. It's not that it's a bad novel, I just found it hard to get involved in the story. I couldn't quite bring myself to give up on it, but it was a bit of a struggle to keep going back to it.
Martin Fruchtman has clearly done his research, and he does a superb job of conveying not just the horrors of war, but the practicalities of torture and intimidation. He paints an interesting picture of the political and religious landscape,and really develops the elements of the various cultures that come together. Timur is a difficult man to build a story around, since he's completely abhorrent and unlikable, but there is no denying he is a brilliant leader. He's not a man you enjoy reading about, and certainly not a hero to tie your hopes, but he is fascinating on an intellectual level.
It's David, Timur's Jewish doctor, who makes the story accessible, his presence an interesting narrative trick on behalf of Fruchtman, and one that allows for some thought-provoking observations on just how little we, as a society, have changed over the years. He drives the story forward, connects the various plot threads, and 'speaks' for the reader in many ways. While the book didn't entirely work for me as a novel (in terms of protagonists and villains, story arc, etc.), it certainly did work as a sort of narrative biography, which I do enjoy, but not with the all-consuming, complete immersion of an epic novel.
It's an easy story to become overwhelmed by, especially with the gratuitous gore and relentless carnage, but worth sticking with if you're at all interested in the history of warfare, conquest, empire building, and religious fanaticism. Well-written and well-researched, it's definitely worth a read for the right audience.
Published August 7th 2012 by Martin Fruchtman
Paperback, 528 pages