Tamburlaine’s Elephant

Written by Geraldine McCaughrean
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley Rachel Beggs (age 13)


14th century Asia. Twelve-year-old Rusti, a Mongol, is one of Tamburlaine’s Golden Horde who swept through Asia conquering all in its path. Now Tamburlaine has his sights on Delhi, where the booty is rumoured to be fabulous. But things do not proceed according to plan. The Indian army has elephants, who terrify the Mongols. When Rusti is ordered to capture a fallen elephant, he is scared stiff. He can only do it with the help of the elephant’s mahout, Kavi, who has stayed with her.

Rusti has been brought up to think other races are of no account. He despises Kavi as a slave. Gradually, as he learns elephant ways from Kavi, he realizes that there are other ways of looking at the world. Then an encounter with the chronicler reveals a long-hidden secret about Rusti’s own history which leads him to view Tamburlaine differently. But this is dangerous thinking. Tamburlaine is an exceptionally brutal man. The slightest hint of disloyalty and both Rusti and Kavi will die.

This interestingly written book has, at times, almost an aura of myth about it. On one level, it’s a tale of an unlikely friendship between two boys; on another, it’s a psychological journey from unthinking warmongering to recognition that brute force entails the deaths of many innocent people and the destruction of whole cities. But it’s more than this; the author is also concerned with the concomitant cultural destruction where something valuable is lost forever.

The truths Rusti learns are eternal: love, truth, peace; respect for others who are different, for animals, for life. On the surface, this is an epic tale of man’s inhumanity to man, but it is redeemed by the small acts of courage and kindness through which humanity shines.

A most rewarding book. 11 plus.


The descriptions of the characters and the scenery were very good – I had clear images of what was happening all the time I was reading. The author built up the characters well, because in every situation I could understand why they felt as they did, and almost imagine that I was in their shoes. Sometimes the story was written from two points of view – I found this very effective and it helped me to empathise.

For the first half or so of the book, I didn’t really find a definite plotline, and I saw it as a series of events with only Kavi / Kavitta to link them all together. This was a bit off-putting after the first chapter because there was nothing to hook me in. However, when it came to the second half (when Rusti met the chronicler) it suddenly became more interesting because the plot develops when we know the truth about Rusti. The last two chapters were the best, because we find out about the plot to kill Tamburlaine.

I would give this book 6 out of 10, and I would recommend it to both boys and girls aged between 11 and 13.