Book Review: The Journeyer – by Gary Jennings

I am much enriched from having read The Journeyer by Gary Jennings.

It took me a long time to read this book, not because I was not diligently working on it, but because it is a massive book, 800 pages long and I don’t know the word count (why the Kindle does not display the word count keeps baffling me).

I would never have thought of picking it up, had it not been for a chance conversation a few years ago with an Indian associate (man with turban) driving a rental car through rural Iowa on the way from Omaha to Des Moines. It was an icy January afternoon. We talked about our respective favorite books, and there were some surprising overlaps. Then he recommended The Journeyer.

Gary Jennings tells the story of Marco Polo, who left his home in Venice in 1271, at the age of 17, together with his merchant father, Nicolo Polo, and his uncle, Mafio Polo. The elder Polos had traveled the Silk Road to China once before and had committed to the Kublai Khan that they would come back with a large contingent of Christian priests and missionaries to help spread Christianity in Asia. Marco was a misfit youth and it was not clear how far he would travel with them at the time they left. Being inquisitive and intelligent by nature, Marco started a journal and eventually wrote his story. The Polos didn’t bring clerics in the end, but they brought themselves.

There were doubtless many thousands of westerners who had traveled along the Silk Road for a thousand years before Marco Polo, and after him, but it was Marco who wrote about it, and through his writing he became famous and we still know his name to this day. Scholars over the years have analyzed his work. Some have cast doubt on the authenticity of his work. Some claim that he was never actually in China and cast him as a fraud.

The Journeyer is Jennings’ historical fiction account of Marco Polo’s life, based on what we know of his life, and embellished and fictionalized where necessary to make it readable. Accuracy, authenticity and veracity notwithstanding, Jennings tells a captivating story framed in rich detail.

After leaving Venice in 1271, it took the Polos over three years to travel to China, their final destination being Khanbalik, the seat of the Mongol government in the area of the current Beijing. They took a ship from Venice to the current Israel, then traveled by horseback,  mule, camel and sometimes by foot across the Middle East, the deserts of Iran, the mountains of Afghanistan crossing the western Himalayas, around the vast deserts of central Asia and through the immense distances of western China.

Once in Khanbalik, Marco was in the employ of the Kublai Khan during the height of his power, when he ruled over the largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen. As an emissary of the Khan, Marco made several “side trips” to different areas of China, as well as to Indochina and even over to India. Eventually, the Khan tasked the Polos to escort a princess to be married to the ruler of Persia, and they traveled in style, in a fleet of 14 huge ships, from China, around Asia, to Persia. After dropping the princess off, the Polos made their way overland to Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) and then by ship home to Venice.  The trip home took over three years, also. They had first left Venice in 1271. They returned in 1295. Marco left as a teenager and came back at age 41. The elder Polo had married just before he left to have a wife to look over his business and estate while he was gone. Imagine marrying and having your husband leave for a business trip to Asia and not come back for 24 years. After Marco came home, he wrote his book, married, had three daughters, took care of the business, and besides a stint as of a year on Bruges an behalf of his government,  he never journeyed again.

As fascinating as Marco’s story is, the imagery of his travels, the people that he meets, the customs he describes, the religions he encounters, surprised me in so many ways I could probably write an 800 page book about it. That’s not practical, so I will just jot down some of my thoughts and observations that I took away with me going on Marco Polo’s journey with him.

Since reading this book, I have bought two historical atlases, so I could look up the political period, study the empires of the world leading up to the late 13th century, and follow the meteoric rise of the Mongols during that period. I have sourced (but not quite yet bought) two miniseries on DVD, based on Polo’s life, one of 1982 (the better reviewed one) and another of 2007 (so-so with Brian Dennehy). I have read numerous articles about Genghis Khan and his grandson Kublai Khan, and I have resolved to find more historical fiction about the period. I have also ordered a book of photography by a journalist who followed the footsteps of Polo along the Silk Road.

I am astonished how little I knew about Asia during the Medieval times. We Europeans focus on Europe. The Mongols were a scary horde when they threatened to invade Europe and got as far as Poland before, lucky for the Europeans, they turned around on a technicality. Had they not, I might not be alive today. Asia consisted of dozens, perhaps hundreds of little fiefdoms and empires. China was already then a “superpower.” China is said to have been the richest country in the world for 17 out of the last 20 centuries. Their culture, science, arts and technology were way ahead of anything Europeans knew at the time. The populations where huge. There were many cities with more than a million people in the 13th century in China. In contrast, Venice was a little burg of 150,000 or so. I found it interesting how my focus shifted as I followed Marco Polo into the Asian landmasses. I found myself looking back to Europe, as it moved away further and further. Eventually, Europe seemed like a scrawny little peninsula at the western edge of the world, too far away and too little to trifle with for the Mongols. Europeans were these odd, pale people with their curious and inconvenient religion called Christianity.

Jennings is not trying to be politically correct in this book. Polo classifies the races, with the white (himself) being near the top along with the Mongols, who were the ruling power of the world then. Below that were the Han (the Chinese) with their various different offshoots. Others, like the Armenians, Persians, Arabs, were lower yet.  Further down were the lowly Tibetans and the lower yet races in Indochina. More than any other, he loathed the Indians and the Hindu religion.

There is an endless stream of atrocities, committed by bandits along the Silk Road, innkeepers that are less than honest, kings and rulers out for their own good, warriors in a quest of conquering. Polo depicts terrible torture of all conceivable variations. He talks about genocide of disposable races. The Khan plays chess on a life-sized board where the chess pieces are humans dressed up as the characters. The hapless human playing a pawn that gets defeated is decapitated for good measure, even though it was the king that made the fatal move in the first place. The pawn is just that, a pawn.

Sex permeates this book. We follow Polo’s sexual growing up all the way to old age. We learn about the sexuality of the people along the way. Virgins were priced above all, seemingly by almost all the races. However, women in general had little value other than to serve as sperm receptacles and child bearers. “I have no children, only three daughters.” Homosexual (anal) sex was rampant, particularly in the Muslim and Arab countries, all the way through Persia and Afghanistan. Muslims, apparently, loathed women and only “used” them to impregnate them. Otherwise they preferred boys, pretty boys. Muslim men had avid sex lives that did not involve women. Mothers groomed their boys to be sex objects by applying successively larger and larger anal plugs when they were toddlers to make their openings supple, strong, muscular and yet pliable. Boys of age 9 and up were routinely sold to rich men as sex objects. Female circumcision in the Muslim world was a routine practice. You didn’t need pleasure to get pregnant, so what was the point of having a clitoris? Child use and what we would today call abuse for sexual purposes was commonplace and expected everywhere in Asia. Then, of course, there was bestiality, cross dressing, and many other sexual practices that I have conveniently forgot about again that Polo describes in vivid detail. This story is not for the prude and faint-hearted.

I knew what a eunuch was, but I didn’t know there were different variations. There are those that had their testicles removed when they were boys. There were those that had them removed after growing to manhood. There were also those that had their penises removed entirely. The various types of eunuch had different roles and were created for different purposes.

Slavery was widespread and everywhere. The lines between servants and slaves seemed blurred. Slaves were created when a conqueror subjugated a people. The women, the daughters and the boys were routinely raped and shipped off as slaves. The men of military age were usually killed to keep things safe. You could be a prince one day and a slave the next day, with no way out for the rest of your life.

Girls born in slavery to work in a harem were made deaf and dumb (so they could not tell stories) by shoving hot irons into their ears and throats as infants. Boys that had musical inclination were purposely blinded so they would focus more on their music without distraction by sight.

As Polo blasts people, he blasts religions. Being a Christian himself, of course he compares the religions he encounters along the way to Christianity. I enjoyed reading about the dominant role religions played in shaping human culture through the centuries. I can’t find much good that it did for the Christians, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, and all the other sects sprinkled over Asia. Religion was a tool used by the powerful to subjugate the masses and justify their own crimes and atrocities.

I contrasted this story to the time of Pillars of the Earth, which starts about at the same time in the 13th century in England, when John Builder starts work on the Kingsbridge Cathedral. England seems like an odd little island off the edge of the world, as seen from the perspective of the Great Khan and Marco Polo. I also learned about how trade was conducted. How did one finance a trip of three years one way? How did one deal with the profits? You could not very well carry a bag of gold back to Europe on a camel, riding for three years.

I knew very little about this period in history. I actually had thought Marco Polo was a sailor like Magellan or Columbus. I know better now. Reading The Journeyer has been a real journey for me.



5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Journeyer – by Gary Jennings

  1. Eric Petrie

    Nothing like a time when populations were small (a mere million in a city?!), human life was cheap (expendable, manipulable slave communities), and children were for sport. How can one not hate the past?!

  2. Hope

    This was my first read by Gary Jennings and is one of my all time favorites. I also really enjoyed Spangle(Roadshow and Center Ring). I could not put them down.
    I’ve yet to read Raptor.

  3. Dan P

    I read this book over the course of one day and night in 1989 while living in Valdez working on the Exxon Valdez oil spill. I could not put it down. It started me down a road of reading nearly all of Gary Jennings’ books, and began a real love for historical fiction including Ken Follett and Edward Rutherfurd’s books, of which I’ve read most. I always recommend this book to someone who is looking for something they can really sink their teeth into.

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