The writer Rosemary Sutcliff

I did not know her writing until I picked up “Blood and Sand” at my hairdresser’s. Angelo’s runs an informal library where patrons circulate their own books. I have sampled a variety of writings I wouldn’t have ordinarily selected at the public library.

Sutcliff is best known for her children’s books but this, her adult novel, impressed me tremendously. Through it I learned of the tribal wars in 1805 Egypt, that the Viceroy in Cairo was Albanian, that Albanian adventurers and mercenaries flocked to Egypt and mixed it up with the Ottoman Empire, Bedouins, Saudi Arabians, and all faced off with the Wahabis, precursors of the ISIS militants plaguing the Mideast today. Thomas Keith, a Scotsman who converted to Islam, rose in the ranks to become governor of Medina, the second most holy site after Mecca.

The scenarios of desert conflict are worthy, it seems to me, of high praise, with their stretches of stunning heat and dependence on the precious annual rainfall. Parched is an inadequate word for the land.

I have one reservation, that of the descriptions of the thousands of camels and horses used in the back-and-forth surges of the armies. I cannot begin to imagine how they were being fed and watered. There is frequent mention of the men’s reliance on the turgid quality of water in their bottles, but what of the animals? How in the world did they get watered and fed, as well? How to grow or transport their fodder? Presuming these campaigns are all factual — and they must be, because recorded history has them so — how were the animals sustained?

Still, I look forward to finding and reading Sutcliffe’s other novels.


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