No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

#101: Blood and Sand -- Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff was one of my favourite writers of historical fiction as a child, and I've continued to enjoy her novels -- most of which I've reread again and again -- in adult life. I wasn't even aware of this novel -- published in 1987 -- until I read a LiveJournal post about it.

It's an adult novel: I don't mean that it's full of sex and violence, though there's some of each, but the language is more mature, and the descriptions of warfare more intricate and strategically detailed. Yet at the heart of the novel, as at the heart of so many Sutcliff books, is a close friendship between two young warriors -- in this case Thomas Keith, Scots armourer captured in battle and a willing convert to Islam, and Tussun Bey, the Viceroy's charismatic younger son. The novel is set in Napoleonic times: 1807, in Egypt and the Holy Land, with Napoleon and Wellington passing in the background like the shadows of giants behind a painted screen. In many respects the setting, though exotic, feels little different to Sutcliff's depiction of Roman Britain. The military detail seems less compelling, either because of the lack of that familiar setting (and the author's encyclopaedic knowledge of same) or because, with its mature target audience, it focusses more on politics and double-dealing.

Based (including some of the most swashbuckling elements) on a true story, but I haven't been able to find out very much more about Thomas Keith. There's one element that Sutcliff specifically mentions inventing -- Keith's marriage -- and his wife Anoud is not as compelling a character as the other protagonists. At the close of the novel, her thread of the story seems very much an afterthought. It fits the unexpected ending, but makes her role in the tale equivocal.

Recommended, though certain readers will revel more in the subtext than in the story that Sutcliff tells.

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