Empire of Sand by Robert Ryan

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Empire of Sand by Robert Ryan

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Iain Wear
Reviewed by Iain Wear
Summary: Not knowing much about the subject, I was able to read this simply as a First World War based desert adventure. In this respect, at least, it was an enjoyable and fairly gripping story.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: April 2008
Publisher: Headline Review
ISBN: 978-0755329243

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I've long thought that 'historical fiction' was a bit of a misnomer. After all, fiction by definition has to stop where real history begins. However, that doesn't mean that wrapping fiction around historical events or people can't lead to a decent story and that's what has happened here.

It is 1915 and with the First World War raging in Europe, events are also progressing in Africa and the Middle East. In Cairo, a British Intelligence Officer by the name of T. E. Lawrence has come to believe that the only way to beat the German supported Turks is for the Arab tribes to unite and revolt against them. Unfortunately, he doesn't have the opportunity or the influence to put his ideas into practice, as he is confined to a Map Room in Cairo.

On the German side, one of their field agents in Persia has taken a number of British people hostage in an attempt to reclaim some important possessions and information that has fallen into the hands of their enemies. Thanks to this agent's familiarity with some of the Persian tribal chiefs, previous rescue attempts have failed and the only thing that remains is for an exchange to be made.

This sounds like it could be a fairly standard war story, but what links it with fact is the character of T. E. Lawrence, who subsequently became better known as Lawrence of Arabia and whose actions are still reverberating around the Middle East today. The events that make up the story here, however, pre-date that period by a year or two and aren't quite as exciting as his life was later to become.

This means that the story here seems a little unevenly paced. Much of the early parts show what motivated Lawrence to become as involved in the Arab revolt as he did, but don't actually tell that part of the story. Whilst the motivation is quite interesting, because the story stops before the events it eventually led up to, it seems a little disjointed. The story here does eventually lead Lawrence into the desert on an active mission, but it takes so long getting there that by the time is does, it's been a bit of a struggle and the excitement of the last part of the adventure doesn't quite make up for it.

It's possible that in my ignorance of the details of the war in the Middle East, I have missed something important in the early parts of the story. I can certainly see how events would have motivated Lawrence to become who he did, but as someone without the knowledge of the history and who was reading this purely as an adventure story, the early pace felt a little slow to me. I did very much enjoy the latter parts, as the setting and the writing reminded me of Desmond Bagley's Flyaway, which I read many years ago.

It was this reminder that allowed me to relax and enjoy the story to its fullest towards the end. I have been a great fan of Bagley's work for many years and the reminder of his style enabled me to mostly put all the posturing and preparation behind me and settle into the story. Ryan's writing style mixes fact in with fiction in a way that with my inexperience I wasn't able to tell which might have been which and let me forget that this was based in part on true events. The more experienced historian may be able to see the joins and this may reduce their enjoyment of the book, but for me Lawrence seemed like a decent action hero and that was enough for me.

Perhaps the main let downs for me were the epilogue and the prologue. These sections took events two years into the future and allowed for the story to be told almost in flashback. Whilst the stylistic device was slightly unnecessary, the main issue was that the life Lawrence was living at that point was actually more exciting than the one he was living at the time of the story. Whilst I was able to forget this in between the two parts, the epilogue reminded me of it again and left me wondering why Ryan didn't tell the 1917 story instead of the 1915 one.

This certainly isn't a history book, as I'm sure many of the events here are the result of iamgination and not research. Besides, history never really interested me all that much at school and this managed to hold my interest pretty well. I'm not going to try and guess what a historian may make of this book, but I suspect that if a Tom Clancy fan ever wondered what war would be like eight decades before Jack Ryan ever came across the concept, this would be the ideal answer.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For another fictional look at the events of the life of T E Lawrence we can recommend Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell.

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Buy Empire of Sand by Robert Ryan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Empire of Sand by Robert Ryan at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Empire of Sand by Robert Ryan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Empire of Sand by Robert Ryan at Amazon.com.


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Robert Ryan said:

Hi- Iain's review was brought to my attention by my publisher. I am very happy with it and he makes good points about historical fiction in general and EOS in particular. One interesting thing that has been mentioned before - why didn't I do 1917 and the Arab revolt? Well, there are several reasons. One is I didn't want to simply novelise the film. The David Lean movie is not without historical flaws and some aspects are dated, but overall it is a very good screenplay - Spielberg rates it as one of the best ever. Secondly, that area of Lawrence's life (1917-18) has been picked over so fastidiously by biographers, there is no room for a novelist to move. because everything is so well documented - or mulled over in the case of TEL's possible fabrications - and the moments when I deviated from the facts would be obvious. In 1915, though, there are huge lacunae in which I can move around without treading on historian's toes too much. It also gave me a chance to look at what it was about the Englishman that made him able to inspire the Arabs later on. Finally, I was fascinated by Wilhelm Wassmuss, TEL's German counterpart and wanted to use him to show that Lawrence was part of a much bigger story. One that involved oil, of course. Hope that explains my thinking and thanks again for featuring Empire of Sand,


Robert Ryan

Vicki Black said:

Could Lawrence have had had Asperger's Syndrome? He wanted to live outside his society. He lead but showed little empathy for those who followed him. He even has the classic autistic head shape and slightly amibivilent sexuality (perhaps not gay but not that interested?) He took dangerous risks. The more I think about it, the more I can see it - but I don't know why no one else has thought it so I doubt my suspicions. Anyone want to follow it up? Vicki Black