Rosemary Sutcliff was a prolific writer of historical novels from the 1950’s through the 1990’s. She is best known for children’s literature, and most of the books I’ve read by her are set in Britain during or shortly after the Roman occupation. She also wrote a series of Arthurian novels, placing Arthur in the time just after the Roman withdrawal, which is a much more likely time period for him than the Middle Ages, if he existed at all.
Blood & Sand is for adults, however. It is based upon the life of Thomas Keith, an actual Scottish soldier in the Napoleonic Wars, who was captured in Egypt while fighting for Britain. Keith converted to Islam and went on to become the governor of Medina.
Blood & Sand is full of adventure and fighting, but it also depicts a sincere conversion to Islam and a love for the desert. It has beautiful descriptions of the desert landscape. Several times I was reminded of the line in the movie Lawrence of Arabia, where Prince Feisal describes Lawrence as “another of these desert-loving English.”
Thomas takes the name Ibrahim and makes a good friend of Tussun, the younger son of the Viceroy of Egypt. Part of his decision to convert is because of the opportunities for advancement with the Sultan’s army, and he becomes involved in trying to free the holy cities of Arabia from a group of religious zealots called the Wahabis. Some of the issues in the latter part of the book have echoes for us in modern times, showing us that these kinds of battles have been going on for hundreds of years.
I mildly enjoyed this novel. The characters are concerned with issues such as honor and are not terribly well rounded. The descriptions of Thomas’ life in Egypt and Medina and the customs of his new people were more interesting to me than the action scenes. There is a small bit of romance in the novel as Thomas marries a girl to protect her and ends up loving her, but it is not very important to the novel, and she herself is not fleshed out. The writing is at times, especially in the descriptive sections, quite beautiful, however.