You might remember that Secret of the Sands was the product of my Kindle download experiment of judging a book by its first chapter and I was in no way disappointed. This is a rattling good yarn with a fascinating setting – both historical and geographical – which is evoked in fabulous detail by the author Sara Sheridan.
I won’t summarise the plot, but it centres on Lieutenant Wellsted of the ship Palinurus, sent by the East India Company in 1833 to map areas of the Arabian Peninsula which is proving obstructive to trade between East and West. Wellsted has already submitted a memoir of his travels to the publisher John Murray in London when two of his fellow officers, on an intelligence mission in the desert, are heard to have been captured by a local chieftain and he is sent off to rescue them. At the same time, a young Abyssinian girl Zena has been taken into slavery and ends up, along with the slavers who have possession of her, as part of Wellsted’s expedition.
Thus the ingredients for a romantic adventure fall into place. But along the way we get an intriguing account of society in Arabia as seen in the town of Muscat. In what is both a cross-roads and melting pot of cultures, an Arab agent learns English with an Irish accent, the English must accept slavery they have recently banned at home, and daily life involves constant negotiations around culture, class and caste as well as goods and money. The writer also bring to vivid life the sounds and sensations of a wealthy household, a naval ship or a Bedouin encampment with equal knowledge and skill.
I learned a great deal from this book (for instance that there was smallpox in coastal Arabia in this period) which also sent me running to an atlas to check the geography of an area I realised was all too vague in my mind. I also enjoyed the ripping yarn which evolves when the trip into the desert begins. My only quibble would be that the plot languished for a while as we were introduced to an array of characters, who were all interesting but who also made me impatient. Drawn instantly to Zena, Jessop (the captured doctor) and Wellsted himself (for me the ‘anchors’ of the story) I would have been happy for events and other people to have emerged through their eyes and was slightly frustrated at having to spend time with, for instance, the captain and crew of the Palinurus.
The book is of course inspired by the letters and journals of Wellsted, and if I’d been reading in print I might well have skipped ahead to the author’s historical notes which do add greatly to the interest. However the e-book is less tempting in this respect and so I simply dived into the story and left the facts until the end, which for a work of fiction is no doubt as it should be.
I would certainly recommend this for anyone who likes historical novels, or perhaps even more so to anyone who might not usually choose this genre. I think they would be both surprised and impressed, and I myself will definitely be looking out for Sara Sheridan’s other books.
Since finishing Secret of the Sands I have coincidentally been
planning planned a trip to the Middle East and am grateful for the insight into its history. A final request? A map of Wellsted’s expedition (unless I have missed it) – in print or on the author’s website- would add the finishing touch to my education!