Robert Ryan has long been one of the most accomplished writers is in what might loosely be called the crime and thriller field, demonstrating a masterly authority when it comes to evoking a variety of historical eras (notably the Second World War). But as Empire of Sand
pleasurably demonstrates, Ryan's interest in history is giving him a very wide remit, and the book is in fact a vigorous reinvention of the life of Thomas Edward Lawrence -- Lawrence of Arabia, no less. It is a brave author who takes on a figure quite as iconic as T E Lawrence; apart from David Leans celebrated movie, there is of course, Lawrence's own classic account of his desert campaign, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
). But it is to Ryan's considerable credit that his epic novel is more than able to hold its own in this luminous company.
As the First World War tears Europe apart, an ambitious young officer in the intelligence services, Thomas Lawrence, is sent to Cairo, where he toils in the GHQ Map Room. But he is very different from many of the English officers who surround him -- he does not regard the Arab nation with the same disdain as many of his colleagues, and nurses a strong desire to do something positive for these people. His brief is to liaise with a cadre of spies in the Levant, and Lawrence comes to believe that it is his destiny to inaugurate an Arab revolt to unseat the oppressive Ottoman presence. But as the situation becomes more bloody and lethal (with a spate of kidnappings which are the work of a notorious German agent), Lawrence finds himself dealing with Captain Harold Quinn, assigned to kill the German agent, Wassmuss. And as Lawrence and Quinn (along with a crack team that they put together) begin a dangerous desert odyssey, they find that the hunter can very easily become the hunted.
While the excitements of a thriller narrative are well to the fore here (and handled with the panache that is Robert Ryans stock in trade), the author is well aware that a novel such as this must contain acute character analysis of such a complex figure as Lawrence -- and in that area, Ryan acquits himself with quite as much skill as he does in the more pulse-racing episodes of the novel. Empire of Sand has the reader wondering what other historical figures Ryan could bring this intriguing approach to. --Barry Forshaw
A magnificently realised novel that recreates the extraordinary life of Lawrence of Arabia