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The Sleeper in the Sands
Tom Holland
Little Brown UK, 372 pages

The Sleeper in the Sands
Tom Holland
Tom Holland is the British author of a pair of Gothic historical vampire novels: The Vampyre; The Secret History of Lord Byron (1996, UK; as Lord of the Dead in US) and Supping with Panthers (1997, UK; as Slave of My Thirst in US). He has also written Attis and Deliver Us From Evil. Holland lives in London, England.

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A review by Georges T. Dodds

The Sleeper in the Sands is a book that would stand well, both stylistically and in terms of quality, on a bookshelf between Guy Boothby's Pharos the Egyptian (1899), H. Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang's The World's Desire (1890), Richard Marsh's The Beetle (1897), Baroness Orczy's The Gates of Kamt (1910; a.k.a. By the Gods Beloved) or Bram Stoker's The Jewel of the Seven Stars (1912), early classics of fantasy and horror based around ancient Egypt.

Holland's novels, in general, have the stamp of the great British adventure and horror writers of the late 19th/early-20th century. The Sleeper in the Sands weaves together three layers of Egyptian history: Howard Carter's discovery of Tut-Ankh-Amon's tomb in the early 20s; the reign of the "Muslim Caligula," Bi-Amr Allah Al-Hakim; and the childhood and reign of Akh-En-Aten, predecessor of Tut-Ankh-Amon and great idealistic pharaoh whose name was excised from all public documents after his death.

The first segment presents Carter's development into one of the most important archaeologists of his time. Early on, while in Egypt, Carter had visited the dilapidated mosque of Al-Hakim and received a manuscript. It explains the curse he later reads on a tablet sealing Tut's tomb entrance, why shadowy characters are trying to impede his progress, and may also explain the medallions to the sun-god Aten which begin to appear mysteriously in newly discovered tombs.

The second segment begins with the story of Haroun Al-Vakhel, general and later sage and councilor to the insane Caliph Al-Hakim. First sent to destroy a lost city of undead dedicated to an incredibly ancient deity, Amman, he returns successfully. A beautiful and ageless young woman comes to him. They marry and for a while all is well. Soon, however, people begin wasting away. At first he refuses to admit to himself that she is an immortal initiate of the mysteries of the lost city.

In the third segment the story shifts to Akh-En-Aten, who, as he matures and becomes pharaoh, discovers the ancient curse of his bloodline. Renouncing his ancestry and the temptation of immortality through the bloodthirsty mysteries of Amon, he initiates a monotheistic worship of Aten, the Sun, and attempts to end the curse.

Given my passion for archaeology, and in particular Egyptology, I had high expectations for Sleeper in the Sands. When I found that the story shifted to an oriental tale about a third of the way through, I was disappointed to leave the well-developed character of Howard Carter, felt somewhat jarred at the change in milieu and narrative style, and perhaps, I'll admit it, a bit annoyed at not having seen it coming. However, on continuing, Haroun's adventures, while in the 1001 Nights-mode, reminded me of the great oriental lost-race novels of the 20s and 30s. Haroun's development from military leader to pacifist, to sage, and to master of unspeakable mysteries, parallels those of Carter in the previous segment and of Akh-En-Aten in the next one. The development of Haroun's character and his resistance, open hostility and final acceptance of the ancient mysteries makes him an interesting, multi-dimensional character.

One of Holland's best qualities is his attention to historical detail without making the book didactic. Admittedly, my knowledge of Egyptian mythology and reading of the entire 1001 Nights (burp!!) means that I probably got more out of the novel than others might; however, this doesn't mean that the novel would not appeal to the historical neophyte.

Beyond this, the richness of the atmosphere and the plot complexity, which my summary hasn't begun to address, make The Sleeper in the Sands several cuts above the average. However, these same qualities may perhaps make the book less accessible to many of today's readers who often prefer linear plotting with plenty of action to a more rich and complex novel. Fear not though, The Sleeper in the Sands for all its depth certainly does not hold back on action and grisly horror. For those of us versed in the lost-race novel, The Sleeper in the Sands has the usual treacherous priests, beautiful princesses, ancient curses, and of course lost cities. This may seem somewhat old-fashioned nowadays, but this bygone form of fantasy literature along with the historical accuracy puts one much more in the mood of Howard Carter's 1920s.

So if you're tired of waiting for the next instalment of the Indiana Jones saga, watching reruns of The New Voyages of Sinbad, and can't get enough of Mummies Alive, here's your big chance to fulfil all your needs at once.

Copyright © 1999 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.

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