Empires of Sand
I grew up in the 1960s when big panoramic historical novels by people like Thomas Costain, Kenneth Roberts, and Hervy Allen were popular. In those days it seemed that almost everybody’s dad was a WWII vet with an interest in history. Lots of these books had compelling love stories though no one would have dared called them “romances” to the conservative guys who read them. These books formed the foundation for my own love of history, so when I received the beautifully bound hard copy of Empires of Sand, complete with maps, I was jumping for joy.
I kept jumping for a while. Empires of Sand is, at its heart, the story of Moussa DeVries, the only son of a French count and his cousin, Paul. Moussa is half French and half Tuareg. The Tuareg are a nomadic Saharan desert tribe. The first half of the book takes place in France in 1866 when the boys are children and continues through the 1870 siege of Paris. It begins with the love story of Serena and Henri, Moussa’s parents and goes on to tell the tragic story of Paul’s father and mother and their unhappy marriage. For some time, over a hundred pages at least, I was unsure of exactly who the main characters in this book would turn out to be.
The second half of Empires of Sand begins in the Sahara in 1876. For reasons that I should not reveal, the boys have been separated and have grown to become men committed to different and opposing cultures. Moussa has fully adapted to the Tuareg life. Paul has become a French soldier. When the French attempt to build a railroad across the Sahara, the Tuareg oppose them in a brutal war. When the cousins meet we have the kind of “brother against brother,” story common in American Civil War novels. This second half of the book also includes the love story of Moussa and the young desert woman, Daia.
David Ball knows how to draw you into a story, and how to make historical events compelling. Empires of Sand begins with the attack of a boar on the two boys. Then as soon as we are thoroughly intrigued, the action shifts to the desert meeting years before of Serena and Henri, Paul’s parents. Once we have become completely enthralled with that story, the action shifts again back to France, then to the story of Paul’s father and his adventures in the war. Every time the action shifts we get a new point of view.
Are you getting my drift?
Empires of Sand is, in many ways a worthwhile book, but it can be a frustrating one. First time author David Ball decided to ignore the modern pattern of sticking with the points of view of a few main characters, and gives us the point of view of virtually every important player. Some of this can be fascinating – the story of Paul’s father for example, is riveting and I couldn’t put the book down until that part of the story was resolved. But when it was resolved, the man disappeared as a character. I missed him as I missed many of the characters who take up one or two compelling chapters only to bow out of the story.
Another problem with the book is that the villains are far too broadly drawn. David Ball writes convincing characters but when he writes a villain, the person is completely degenerate. Among the bad people is a wicked homosexual, pedophile Catholic bishop. His greed and cruelty seem jarring when contrasted with the book’s more realistic main characters.
I thoroughly enjoyed parts of Empires of Sand. Events such as the siege of Paris are told in a dramatic and detailed way. But the novel misses becoming a great sweeping historical novel because Moussa and Paul are not the most interesting people in the story. I’m usually a fast reader but it took me over a month to get through this five hundred and sixty-one page book. This was mainly because I kept putting it down, angry that some great character had disappeared once again or some interesting subplot had just been resolved.
If you enjoy straight historical fiction set in nineteenth century Paris and the Middle East you may enjoy Empires of Sand. I intend to look for David Ball’s work in the future I just hope his next book requires less patience.