Blood and Sand is based on the true story of Thomas Keith, a Scottish soldier serving in the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars. Taking part in the Alexandria expedition of 1807 – an operation designed to capture the city of Alexandria in Egypt – Thomas is taken prisoner by Ottoman forces at El Hamed. Most of his fellow captives are sent back to Cairo as prisoners of war, but the Ottoman general in command of El Hamed has other plans for Thomas, who is ‘an extremely personable young soldier who speaks French, knows how to bear pain like a gentleman, and is the best swordsman and shot in his regiment’. Sent to train in the desert with the Bedouin cavalry, Thomas gradually rises through the ranks to enter the service of Tussun Bey, the Viceroy of Egypt’s youngest son, and to become Governor of Medina.
You may be wondering how it was possible for a Christian to reach such heights within the Ottoman Empire, so I should explain that Thomas makes the decision to convert to Islam. He does this partly because he is advised that it is the only way to progress in his military career but also because during his time as a prisoner he reads about and studies the Islamic religion and decides that conversion is something he feels comfortable with. However, it seemed to me that he made this choice a bit too easily and quickly; I would have found it more convincing if he had struggled with it more and if he had thought more often of the life he had left behind in Edinburgh and to which he would now never be able to return.
As far as I can tell – I had never heard of Thomas Keith until reading this book – most of the characters in the novel really did exist and most of the events described really did happen. This certainly seems to be true of the battles and military campaigns, but also two of the novel’s most exciting and memorable scenes: a dramatic duel and a desperate battle for survival on a dark turnpike stair. Of course, it’s Sutcliff’s skill as a writer which brings these scenes to life and fills them with suspense and tension, but it sounds as though the real Thomas Keith must have had a fascinating career and some hair-raising adventures. It’s surprising that he has not been a more popular subject for historical fiction.
In her author’s note Sutcliff says that the only area where she relies completely on her imagination is with the romance she creates for Thomas. This possibly explains why our hero’s love interest doesn’t appear until halfway through the book and only plays a relatively small role in the story. A much more interesting and moving relationship is the one between Thomas and Tussun, the Viceroy’s son – a relationship which develops over the years as Tussun grows from an impulsive, hot-headed teenager into a mature, well-respected leader and although it stops short of actual romantic love, is deeper than a normal friendship.
I enjoyed the first half of the novel very much, but later in the book Thomas and Tussun become embroiled in fighting against the Wahabis of Arabia and the heavy focus on military action was much less interesting to me than the more human story I had been finding so engrossing. That’s just my personal taste, though, and the battle scenes will probably appeal to other readers more than they did to me. I didn’t love this book quite as much as I’d thought I was going to at first, then, but I will certainly be reading more by Rosemary Sutcliff, having enjoyed both this one and The Rider of the White Horse.