‘The Sleeper in the Sands’ by Tom Holland

sleeper in the sandsIsn’t it amazing where you come across new books and new authors? I found this one while browsing the shelves of an Aladdin’s cave of a second-hand book shop in Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, where we were staying with relatives. I’d never even heard of Holland before, but was intrigued by the book’s blurb, and by a bit of sales patter from the shop’s owner who’d read and enjoyed it.

And I enjoyed it too, although it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. It’s billed as a supernatural thriller, and the both the blurb and the early chapters make it look as though it’s about Howard Carter’s discovery of the Tutankhamun’s tomb, and the famous curse. However, this is only the starting point for a tale of ancient mysteries, demons, blood-suckers and pharoahs who can never die, as discovered by Carter while researching the tomb. Mysteries follow mysteries, tales follow tales, and the book soon starts to resemble an Egyptian ‘Thousand and One Nights’ as an ancient vizier spins out stories of the evil that roams the desert in order to spare his own life at the hands of a mad caliph.

This isn’t a book you can dip into. It needs a fair bit of concentration to work out the tales-within-tales, and to remember who the vast cast of characters are, and whereabouts in history you are. In the end, Carter’s famous discovery is only really the bread between which the book’s real contents are sandwiched, which I thought was a shame. So much more could have been made of the tomb’s curse and why it impacted on its discoverers the way it (apparently!) did, but this was only hinted at, never fully explored.

I think, too, that Holland simply tries to crowbar too much in. There’s the discovery of the tomb, and a theory about Tutankhamun’s father Akenaten and his worship of the sun, and another theory about the true identity of Akenaten’s father’s advisor Yuya. There’s stuff about the ancient demoness Lilith, and a whole sub-plot about the mad caliph and his incestuous relationship with his sister, and there’s even a suggestion of visitors from outer space. All this in under 500 pages! The end result is that none of it is fully developed, none of the characters ever becomes familiar enough to care about, and the focus of different sections sometimes seems to be in the wrong place. There’s more than enough material here for a whole series of books – certainly two, possibly even three. I’d have liked to see that extra detail, to get to know the people, to feel I was genuinely part of their world.

In summary, it’s staggeringly original, very intriguing, very enjoyable, but ultimately flawed.

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