STAFF PUBLICATION: Shadow of the Dome: A Gripping Tale of Friendship, Duty and Destiny in the Court of Kublai Khan

Written by Karen Warren
Review by Waheed Rabbani

“Because I’m fascinated by history and travel,” says author Karen Warren, “I started reading The Travels of Marco Polo. I came across the story of the Mongol princess travelling to Persia and thought it would make a good short story. Then I realised I could do so much more with it, and the idea for the novel was born.”

In 1291, Kokachin, a Mongolian princess, boards a ship as part of an armada heading to Persia. The Great Kublai Khan has promised her as a bride for his nephew, iI-Khan Arghun, ruler of the Mongolian empire’s Ilkhanate. She is escorted by Marco Polo, his father and uncle, and three Persian ambassadors. Among her entourage are her childhood friend, Mei Lien, and a Mongolian orphaned servant girl, Nergui, Kokachin’s lookalike.

During their near 12-month voyage, the women enjoy the delightful sights and sounds of the strange lands but dream of their homes and the Khan’s Pleasure Dome. When Mei Lien falls seriously ill, Nergui’s status is elevated. There are many more sicknesses and deaths among the passengers and sailors. The Polos become alarmed and fear they may not be able to accomplish their mission.

“The whole period and setting were entirely unknown to me when I started, so I read everything I could get my hands on,” says Warren, noting that published English-language sources on the period are limited. “This meant that I had to fall back on my imagination to some extent, especially where the lives of women and servants were concerned. The hardest thing of all was trying to find out what a medieval Chinese ship would have been like, but I was lucky enough to find a replica Chinese junk in a shopping mall in Dubai!” Her extensive research shows in the narrative’s evocative details.

Much more than a historical travelogue, the story has a captivating plot, with a plausible, and thrilling, “historical shift” at the end. “[This] was purely my own invention,” Warren says. “It just came into my mind while I was looking at ancient Chinese and Mongol artefacts in the British Museum.” Also, “the Travels can’t entirely be relied upon,” she comments. “Marco Polo was in China for more than 20 years, and his travels were only written when he returned to Italy… and he didn’t want to upset the Catholic Church.”

The title comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan, “a sort of dream-like vision of long ago times.” I enjoyed the novel, as images of 13th-century Mongolian cities and those along the South China Sea and Indian Ocean played in my mind. Highly recommended.