In Robert Ryan's newest book, Empire of Sand, he takes us back to the Middle East during the First World War. Ryan's main protagonist is the legendary Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. The main focus of the story centers around the year 1915, before the Arab Revolt of 1916 and Lawrence's fame, and shifts mainly between Cairo and Persia. In Cairo you have Lawrence the map maker and in Persia you have his German counterpart and lookalike Wilhelm Wassmuss (short, blond, blue eyes, etc.). The book is a work of fiction, but most of the characters are real. It seems that Ryan could not resist adding a number of colourful characters to his story, one of these being Gertrude Bell. Even Harry St. John Philby makes a small guest appearance where he makes Lawrence annoyed by claiming that Ibn Saud is the right man to bet on, not Sharif Hussein.
The book is good and very entertaining, but I keep asking myself where the story is going and how interesting it really was. Ryan's portrayal of the characters is very good together with his descriptions. You get sucked into his fictitious world which seems very real. My main problem with the book is the story on a whole. Ryan blends fact and fiction skilfully, but for me it seems a bit anti climatic. The story keeps growing and you expect a big showoff that never really comes.
Ryan's book is worth a read, mostly because of his portrayal of Lawrence and his surroundings, but I would rather recommend James Barr's non-fiction book Setting the Desert on Fire. It is very interesting and at the same time as exciting as a work of fiction.