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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Baljuna Covenant by Tim Pelkey

November 1, 2017

SDP Publishing:  East Bridgewater, MA
2016 (PB)

In his first novel, author Tim Pelkey spins a tale that spans more than eight centuries of history of one of the earth’s most remote regions, that presents a convincing narrative of the hunt for one of antiquity’s most storied treasures, and places all of this in the context of contemporary political Great Power politics.

For eight long summers University of Virginia archaeologist James Andrews has surveyed and excavated the enchantingly desolate lands of Mongolia in a near-obsessive search for the burial site of Genghis Khan, one of history’s greatest conquerors.  At the base of Burkhan Khaldun, Mongolia’s holy mountain, he unearths a fragment of human bone that, when analyzed at the Mongolian Institute of Geography in the capital Ulaanbaatar, may provide some clues in his continuing quest.   James was skeptical that Burkhan Khaldun was the final resting place of the Great Khan, preferring alternate theories that suggested he was buried in the area of Baljuna, the birthplace of the Mongol Empire.  But he had been unwilling to turn down the opportunity to explore Burkhan Khaldun, an area closed to outsiders.  But Baabar Onon, an excavation crew member on that first dig eight years earlier, later his roommate the University of Virginia and  now a member of the Mongolian parliament, had secured the necessary permits and James’ efforts might at last pay off.

James was unprepared for the dangers he would face as the mystery of the bone fragment played out on a much larger canvass than the apparently innocent archaeological search for a lost tomb.  Events begin to spin out of control when DNA analysis matches the bone fragment to the ancestral line of Genghis Khan and carbon-14 analysis suggested a date some 800 years in the past.  The bone is either the Khan’s or that of a close male relative!  But James’ proposal to deliver the results of his discovery at an archaeology conference is spiked by a mysterious cabal intent upon keeping his discovery hidden and they prove more than willing to use violence to keep the secret.

Back in Mongolia, James’ friend Baabar Onon finds himself swept up in a dangerous great powers struggle as China and Russia face off with Mongolia caught in the cross-hairs.  China covets the natural resources of Mongolia while Russia wishes to maintain Mongolia as a geographical buffer between China and itself.  Unlikely as it may seem at first blush, the remains of Genghis Khan play a critical role in this struggle between the belligerents.  James and his dearest friends soon learn that all sides—the Russians, the Chinese, and even the American CIA—are willing to kill to foster their interests.

This is a fascinating first novel, in great part due to the rich background of Mongolian history as well as contemporary Mongolian political history that the author provides.  He deftly works into the novel chapters that follow the rise of the young Temujin—later to be known as Genghis Khan—and his closest allies as they rode the steppes eight hundred years ago to form the greatest empire of the ancient world.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderfully clear and concise explanation of gene sequencing and its use in narrowing down the ancestral line of Genghis Khan, a key plot element.  It was so clear that even I could understand it!

Often times first novels—especially those that are plot-driven as this one clearly is—can leave a bit to be desired when it comes to characterization.  But author Pelkey created strong, believable protagonists, as well as villains—characters that seemed to behave in ways appropriate to the circumstances in which they found themselves.  There was no hint of a sequel but I for one would look forward to more adventures for James Andrews, a believably competent but not uber macho archaeologist!

Four trowels for The Baljuna Covenant.