After thoroughly enjoying my read of Ironfire, by David Ball, I turned to Empires
of Sand, his first book, to see if it would be equally thrilling. Empires of Sand turned out to be a good
story, with some especially memorable scenes, but some how it missed the sense of "epic" that made
Ironfire stand out. Still, Empires of Sand is a fine read.
This novel is set in France, in the second half of the 19th century. It is the story of two
cousins: Moussa and Paul. Moussa is the son of the wealthy Count Henri DeVries and Seneca, a Tuareg woman
that Henri met when his hot air balloon crash landed in the Sahara. (This big novel is full of events like that:
balloon rides, ambushes, villans, war fare, desert heat, underground passages - it is all great fun to read. Certainly the pace
never slows down.) Paul is the son of Jules, Henri's brother. Jules is a colonel in the French army.
This novel seemed uneven to me. Parts of it are terrific - there is a tense scene when
Paul and Moussa attempt to sneak into Paris on a raft during the siege by the Prussians. There is a wonderful scene
where Paul (now an adult serving in the French Foreign Legion) survives an ambush by the Tuareg, and flees up
the side of a mountain, pursued by angry ambushers. (Apparently, this ambush of French troops by the Tuareg is
based upon the true events of the Flatters expedition: France decided it would build a railroad across the Sahara,
and troops and surveyors were sent into the land of the Tuareg to scout the way.) Another exciting part of the book
describes Moussa's enslavement - where he is force to tunnel deep under the sands in the search for water for the
Oasis (apparently, this is also based upon historical events.) Ball has apparently done some research for this book,
a lot of camel riding and desert living skills of the nomads sounds authentic.
Other parts of the novel falter - I found the events that conspired against Henri, Paul's father, not convincing. The evil nun who
torments Moussa is not believable. Nor does the fate of Elizabeth, Paul's mother, in the final chapters, ring true - it seems
too forced. Why are so many people motivated by burning revenge? But for a first novel, this is an impressive offering.
It is certainly worth reading, the adventure and imagination overcome some of the unconvincing characters and plot
twists. This is not quite Beau Geste or Lawrence of Arabia, but time spent reading this book is not wasted.