Secret of the Sands

Written by Sara Sheridan
Review by Lynn Guest

In 1833, Lieutenant James Wellsted is an officer in the British Navy surveying the coast of the Arabian Peninsula as part of a mission to link the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. When two fellow officers are kidnapped by Bedu tribesmen, Wellsted is permitted by the Sultan of Oman to search for them in the Empty Quarter, the vast South Arabian desert, forbidden to Europeans. His guides are two Bedu slavers whose knowledge of the desert is matched by their contempt for white infidels. Wellsted must dress and live as a Turk to travel safely. Also in the caravan is Zena, an Abyssinian girl captured by the two slavers and given to Wellsted.

The novel is mainly concerned with the expedition. Anyone enthralled by deserts (me) will find the terrain, the heat and the people fascinating. Sheridan makes the landscape sing, and the picture of Bedu life is wonderful. Gradually the hazards faced bring a grudging respect between Muslim slavers and Christian officer. A side issue is slavery and the Arab slave trade. The casual way the Arabs, the French and many British accept the fact of human beings as disposable merchandise is powerfully presented.

As in her The Secret Mandarin, Sheridan uses historical figures interacting with fictional ones to create an exciting and often thought-provoking read. One caveat: a glossary for Arab words would have been very useful.