Phew! I mean really, I can’t remember the last book I read that was even close to this long. It may have been something by Terry Goodkind, but even his books aren’t usually this long winded. Empires of Sand is the second (!) book on my 2014 reading list. Yes, I’m a little behind, I’m aware of this. Even as a seven hundred page instrument of blunt force trauma, the book fulfilled it’s purpose for me: it kept me entertained and it put me in a desert mindset to write Bone Wall. I enjoyed it, and if you’re the type who likes to get lost (literally) in a good historical fiction, I think you’ll enjoy it too.
David Ball tells his story in two parts. The first is the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war. The second follows the adventures of the main characters, Moussa and Paul, a decade later and largely in the Sahara. If the afterword is anything to go by, Ball wrote his story thick with history, and his attention to detail shines brightly throughout the narrative. At no point did I ever disbelieve any of the events I was reading. His use of real people from history, even giving them agency within the story, adds realism and suspense that I greatly appreciated.
My sympathies were with Moussa from the start. As a half breed between a French count and a Taureg noble, he gets the shit end of the stick in pretty much everything he does. He’s gored by a boar in the first scene because the evil priest hates his mother, he’s beaten and tormented at school by his peers and his teacher, he’s forced to flee with his mother after she kills the evil priest who tries to molest him (haha, I bet you didn’t see that coming. Hold onto your hats, it’s not the first cliche we’ll meet along the way). In the desert home of his mother, he’s beaten and tormented by his peers for being half French, disavowed by his cousin for not taking up with the French cause, slandered as weak by the other Taureg nobles for taking a soft position on the French, and sold out by his aunt who’s only mind is her own comfort and social advancement. I would have felt more sympathy for Paul, but at times I felt that he wore his PTSD a little too conveniently.
Paul is Moussa’s cousin, and very close to him in age. Much to his mother Elisabeth’s dismay, Paul will never be count as his father Jules is the second born of the family and Moussa is the heir. After Jules is disgraced, dishonored and dispirited enough to take his own life, Elisabeth takes matters into her own hands and pulls the strings behind the stage to see to it that Paul rises to success that will eventually elevate her as well. Paul himself idolizes his father and takes his death quite hard. The only other person he loves as much is his cousin Moussa. When his uncle, aunt and cousin are forced to flee the country, Paul is devastated but follows in the footsteps of his father and joins the army where he enlists on an expedition into the Sahara to survey the land for a possible railway. Driven by the stories told to him by his aunt and his own thirst for adventure, Paul quickly finds that life in the dunes is full of treachery, bloody murder, and hard choices. What he’s seen and had to do he won’t be able to shake easily from his psyche, and will ultimately carve a path of bloody revenge in the sands.
If you’ve ever seen the Disney adaptation of Daniel P. Mannix’s book, The Fox and the Hound, then you are already familiar with the plot of Empires of Sand. Two youngsters born of different worlds become fast friends and inseparable playmates. However, due to an accident caused by the wilder of the two, they are forced into separation. As adults they come together again, share a brief moment of happy reuniting before the stark differences in loyalties separate them again in blood. What follows is a violent chase through the wilderness that ultimately ends in absolution. While I didn’t altogether mind the familiarity of the plot, it did make the ending somewhat predictable. Fortunately, the characters and the setting do wonders at holding reader attention.
This is a very, very long book, with multiple point of views that hop around often, sometimes without the benefit of a scene or chapter break. In the beginning, this confused me a great deal, especially as these point of view hops coincided with time jumps, making it difficult to find myself in the story. As I got deeper into the book, however, the plot became more linear, and the point of view shifts a little more clearly defined, making it easier to anchor myself.
There are some scenes and even point of views that I felt were a little superfluous and tenuously relevant to the story. There are a great number of pages devoted to the backstory of Father Murat and Sister Godrick, Moussa’s chief antagonists in the first half of the story, yet, for characters who do not appear at all in the second half where the bulk of the actual plot happens, their history seems to be unnecessary padding for the book. The point of views devoted to the machinations of Bismarck and the rest of the Prussians also seems rather unnecessary, given that the siege of Paris plays its biggest role as setting in the first half of the book, and absolutely no role in the second half. The Prussians are never heard from again. Delescluze as well is an unfired Chekhov’s gun of a character. He shows up briefly in the story to set up the disgrace of Paul’s father, and then is forever gone from the story, despite several instances of mention that he is being searched for in the book. A little disappointing. In the end, each of these characters is a cog (if tiny) in the machinery of the story, however the convenience of them is very obvious. Almost deus ex machina obvious.
Another thing that sort of tweaked my buttons a little was the villain standard. To be a villain in this story, one had to either have a sexual taste for the same gender (Father Murat, Jubar Pasha), or be Muslim (Tamrit, Mahdi, the Shamba). To a lesser extent, a woman whose power of evil is granted via sexuality (sexual abuse in the case of Sister Godrick, and sexual manipulation in the case of Elisabeth). It’s not that I specifically take issue with people of these groups or having these traits being made villains in stories, more that I take issue with the pervasiveness of them as villains. It’s been done to death, and sometimes it gets a bit offensive.
Now that I’ve complained about the book for a while, here are some of the things I loved:
The setting: Ball writes his settings very tangibly. I could feel the dank of the catacombs, the atmosphere of the Parisian streets, the heat of the Saharan sun and the chill of the mines. Ball spares the reader no detail in placing them right where he wants them. There is no difficulty in painting the scenes of the book in the mind, and it does wonders for bringing the story to life.
The suspense: Whether it’s the playful antics of boys antagonizing both French and Prussian troops or a bloody massacre in the desert, Ball knows how to leave a scene dangling, or draw a scene out just the right amount to make page turning a must.
The characters: Despite their failings, Moussa and Paul are both fundamentally likable characters. Ball did such a good job endearing me to them that I was near tears at the fates of their families and their inevitable separation. That they were able to reconcile in the end was a relief, and allowed me to come away from the book with pleasant feelings.
Strong narrative: This story is stuck firmly in my mind. I have a book hangover at the moment that’s making it difficult to pick up anything else, but the list is long and ever growing longer. Onto the next great book.
The next book on my reading list is A Wolf at the Door, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.