BOSTON — Empires of sand by david Ball Bantam 561 pp., $23.95
Empires of Sand" is a panoramic tale of two worlds in which the best of times and the worst of times are parallel, where every loyalty begets a treachery and every intimacy foreshadows a great divide.
Its first half is set in Paris in 1870, as the City of Light is besieged by the Prussian Army. As food dwindles (the hungriest Parisians buy caged rats from street vendors), fear takes root. But for young cousins Paul and Moussa DeVries, the siege's deprivations set the stage for great boyish adventures.
As close as they are, they remain different: Paul is the son of Jules DeVries, a French officer, and his ambitious wife, Elisabeth. Moussa is the son of adventurous Count Henri DeVries and his wife, Serena, a Saharan noblewoman of the Hoggar Tuareg.
When tragic events send Moussa and his family fleeing to his mother's homeland, he enters a whole new world.
Ball, who earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University, writes with a traveler's sense of place and a journalist's penchant for detail. The book's second half, set in the Sahara 10 years later, is so vivid it leaves a phantom grit on your skin.
In the vast desert, the two cousins once again face each other - as enemies. Like his father, Paul is a French officer, part of a foolhardy expedition to map a rail route across the Sahara. Moussa is a young nobleman among the nomadic Tuareg, veiled warriors who live by a rigid code of honor. Two friends now confront the ghosts of their intermingled pasts as they struggle with the true meaning of integrity and loyalty.
In this sweeping yet precise epic, Ball has created a swashbuckler for urbane readers. His voice recalls, by turns, Michener and Clavell, Sir Richard Burton, and even Alexander Dumas. As a narrative, "Empires of Sand" is part "Beau Geste," part "A Tale of Two Cities."
From descriptions of 19th-century Paris to the cataloguing of the doomed Flatters Expedition in the Sahara, "Empires" has a historic, credible texture. Ball once rode a 50-cc motorcycle across the Hoggar region, spending time among the Tuareg on one of his four journeys across the Sahara. An early draft that would eventually become "Empires of Sand" was actually begun in a Tunisian beach house.
And it's not just what he says, but how he says it. His storytelling style is literate and graceful, erudite but adventurous.
In fact, the book's main "flaw" is its classicism. The very flourish that gives it luxuriant beauty also makes it an occasionally viscous read. That's no sin to anyone who loved "The Count of Monte Cristo," but for readers - and they are legion - whose notion of epic adventure is defined by Tom Clancy, "Empires" might seem too patient and protracted.
But take a lesson from the Sahara itself: Nothing is insurmountable, even if you must take it only one grain at a time.
Ball is reportedly planning an upcoming journey to Turkey and Israel for his next book. His literary itinerary apparently will remain in the parallel worlds of adventure and history.
*Ron Franscell, a Wyoming novelist and newspaperman, is author of 'The Deadline,' to be published this winter by Write Way.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society