Michael Asher’s thriller is set in the Spanish Sahara of 1953 when, shortly before being garrotted, a mysterious stranger informs a grieving father in the UK that his son, Billy, survived a plane crash over the desert seven years earlier.
Both father (as well as more sinister agents) then set off in search of the boy who has since been brought up as a Reguibat warrior-hunter, because Billy holds the clues to the location of buried Nazi gold…
By p.27 you pretty much know how the yarn will pan out – maybe that’s the idea with this genre – and the final showdown in the quicksands is statistically a little far-fetched and unsatisfying. Nevertheless the journey to this point is entertaining and informative. Asher bestows the Reguibat (a Moorish tribe of Yemeni origins who make up today’s Saharawi people in Western Sahara) with many of the better qualities and customs of the Bedu of Arabia with whom the author spent many years.
Untypically, Stirling, the boy’s father is a pacifist who did time for his beliefs during WWII, while the baddies are not all scar-faced Nazis, but include other figures closer to home. The real heroes of course are the proud and honour-bound Reguibat nomads who despise our flabby and crass Western values. Like his mentor Thesiger, Asher cannot resist painting them as noble nomadic raiders wanting nothing more than peace with the despicable neighbouring tribes. At one point the Reguibat join forces with the pagan, dog-hunting Nemadi (also a real if extinct tribe, and a long way from Nema, it seems) and there is an amusing exchange tinged with truth when Muslim and pagan nomads belittle each others’ customs, language and dress.
The big themes in Sandstorm are betrayal, courage and loyalty among nomads and westerners alike – ‘honour’ in a word – and in telling its tale, Sandstorm avoids the worst cringe-making clichés of this genre (on which I’m not an expert) while opening a window on a little known people and part of the Sahara. It compares well with Desmond Bagley’s Flyaway (see review) and is much better than Cussler’s dreadful Sahara. Asher generously credits John Mercer’s Spanish Sahara (see review) for much of his information .