September 1999

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Empires of Sand:

Nineteenth Century Adventures for Modern Enthusiasts

by Woody Arbunkle

Empires of Sand
David Ball
Bantam Books
562 pp.
$23.95 order now logo

Toward the end of his life, Kingsley Amis grew famously impatient with thick, ponderous books. If a book didn't open with the sentence, "A shot rang out," his son Martin reported, he was likely to hurl the volume away.

David Ball's first novel, Empires of Sand, might have flummoxed Amis, I think, for while it opens with a pair of sentences ripe with martial potential--"The children! Hold Fire!"--it's a big, complicated book full of late nineteenth century history. If for no other reason, though, Amis might have avoided throwing it aside because, at five hundred and sixty-two pages, it's the sort of thing one throws easily only in one's youthful, vigorous days.

But I suspect Amis wouldn't have thrown it aside at all. He had a penchant for adventure (he even wrote his own James Bond novel), and while Ball is up to some deeper things under the surface of Empires of Sand, his first priority lies in telling a good, old-fashioned adventure story.

The plot is simple if epic in its sweep. A wealthy French count clashes with an avaricious bishop because the count's new wife, a Tuareg from the Sahara, refuses to convert to Christianity. (In the high-adventure-and-romance tradition of Jules Verne, Count Henri DeVries and his wife first met when the count crash-landed his hot-air balloon in the Sahara near a tribe of camel-riding Tuaregs, "a mysterious race of men" who control the desert's caravan routes.) This being a good, old-fashioned adventure story, the central characters are defined cleanly along traditional, melodramatic lines: the count is gentle, patient and good; the bishop is a potboiler villain, a morally hypocritical, cold-hearted mogul-with-a-crucifix who won his elevation to bishop by literally pummeling his predecessor to death.

The clash gets serious when the count spoils a land deal that would have made the bishop a stunningly wealthy man. A crafty politician, the bishop hides his fury and waits six years for his chance to retaliate. Ordinary men would have let the failed business deal go, of course. But not the bishop. And one day, as the bishop rides by the DeVries estate in his opulent carriage, he sees his chance: the count's son is about to be attacked by a wounded, wild boar (shot by the man to whom the novel's opening line of dialogue is directed: "The children! Hold Fire!"). Naturally, the bishop keeps his driver from intervening and happily watches the boy and his cousin be gored.

But despite the bishop's best efforts (or worst, as it were), the two boys miraculously survive.

Another four years pass. In a foolhardy gesture toward popular sentiment, Emperor Louis Napoleon declares war on Prussia, and Bismarck's army soundly and promptly defeats the French army in the field and puts Paris under siege. The Emperor is captured by the Prussians, a new Republic is formed, and aristocrats are forced to scramble for their lives. In the chaos, the count discovers his brother (a colonel in the Imperial Guard) has been arrested under false pretences as a deserter, and he is forced to plead for his brother's release--but to no avail.

While the count's fortunes are in decline, though, the bishop is in his element, brokering deals for military exemptions, insuring that factories receive compensation for seized goods and seizing the livestock and produce from his own diocese's tenement farms.

Once again, it would seem the villainous bishop is in a position to revenge himself on the count--especially when the count's sister-in-law comes to the bishop and throws herself and her husband on his mercy. She expects him to demand sexual favors, but instead he offers her husband's freedom in exchange for certain papers dealing with land deeds. If she takes the bishop's offer, she'll be thrown out of her brother-in-law's mansion, and she and her family will be forced to live on the ravaged streets of Paris. If she turns him down, her husband will almost certainly be shot as a deserter. A tough choice, right? But what, the bishop asks, if a little money were tossed on the scales? Would she then be willing to betray the count?

Of course, she would. But don't count the count out. While his sister-in-law is secretly betraying him, the count has undertaken an audacious plan to get mail and supplies in and out of besieged Paris with hot air balloons.


Winded? Need a moment to rest? Brace yourself: that's only the first third of the novel. In the last two-thirds, the cousins are separated; one grows up to be a French soldier, the other a reluctant Tuareg warrior. Years pass, and they meet again when France sends out a military party to survey the Sahara for a railroad route to open trade between France and the African countries beyond the desert. But now, of course, they are meeting on opposite sides of a bloody, irrational conflict.

In the final chapters, Ball (who has himself crossed the Sahara four times) delivers an intoxicating blend of rousing military fiction and richly detailed travelogue for armchair enthusiasts of distant, exotic lands. One scene, in which a morphine-addicted French colonel foolishly leaves his men divided and exposed to a Tuareg attack is particularly strong, and in the following chapters that track the French retreat, Ball seems to be consciously defying his readers to set the book down before it is finished.

Ball's portrayal of tumultuous1870s Europe is equally vividly drawn. Indeed, his description of the increasingly chaotic Paris under siege is spellbinding. He is especially good at personalizing the fear inherent in adventure--whether he's showing us the fear a boy feels when he's about to do something audacious like shoot a Prussian soldier with a slingshot or showing us the terror a young soldier feels in his first experience of real combat. Minimalists be warned, though: Ball is not afraid of putting a scene's underlying sentiment on display, and his love scenes can be unabashedly emotional.

On the other hand, if you enjoyed reading Victor Hugo and Jules Verne when you were a kid and have spent your adult reading life secretly wishing you could find the same sort of innocent, melodramatic rush in print, you're in luck. In pace, heft and story, Ball delivers nineteenth-century, romantic adventures by the handful.


But of course, he's up to something else too. As his title suggests, he wants to show that all grand gestures--whether it's Louis Napoleon's monarchy or Prussia's military might or the Tuareg tribesmen's dominance of the camel-driven caravan routes--ultimately come to nothing. As Shelley wrote of similar imperial hubris in "Ozymandias,"


And on the pedestal these words appear:

'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.


But with Ball, at least, we get to see the adventures before they were replaced by that lone and level sand. Click here to find any book!


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