Book review: Secret of the Sands by Sara Sheridan

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On the same day that William Wilberforce’s Bill for the Abolition of Slavery passes through the Commons, a beautiful Abyssinian girl is sold to the highest bidder in an auction in faraway Oman.

The landmark event of 1833 will not rescue 17-year-old Zena from the clutches of the barbaric slavers who took just seven minutes to capture almost everyone in her remote village and spirit away those deemed worthy of sale.

Bound and shackled, she was hustled on board an Arab ship for a hellish voyage across the Indian Ocean to the port of Muscat and it is from this cosmopolitan city that her fate will unfold.

Sara Sheridan’s lush romance set amidst the deserts and palaces of 19th century Arabia brings to life the world as it teetered on the cusp of new freedoms for the enslaved and catches the spirit of adventure and discovery that spawned the British Empire.

Action-packed and full of Eastern mystery and exoticism, Secret of the Sands features a host of captivating characters – some real and some imagined – with a thrilling plot based on the true story of a British naval mission to the Gulf.

Zena is a tough nut to crack...a bright girl who has herself been waited on by slaves; she knows that trying to escape her captors will mean only certain death, so she relies on her eternal optimism and is comforted by the prospect of seeing life beyond her own shores.

Sold at auction to the son of a rich sultan who has no interest in women, she spends her lonely days watching the world go by from her window and it is from this vantage point that she spots the ‘strangest creature’ she has ever seen.

He’s a man, but he has pure white skin, piercing blue eyes and is wearing a uniform covered in gold buttons and braid. She catches his eye and they share a smile.

The white stranger is Lt James Wellsted, an officer from the British naval ship Palinurus which is on a mission to discover more about Arab customs and the general lie of the land.

Unlike the other officers, Wellsted comes from a modest ‘trade’ ackground in London. His grandfather clawed his way up from a cottage with a dirt floor and spent almost the entire family savings on a naval commission for James.

The boy swore over his grandmother’s dead body that he would be a gentleman and make them proud and to that end he has written a manuscript about his discoveries on the small Indian Ocean islands of Socotra that could make his fame and fortune.

But his plans are thrown into disarray when he is sent out on a perilous mission to rescue two fellow officers who have been kidnapped by an angry emir in desert country.

In a twist of fate, Zena is handed to him as a useful pawn on his quest after she was gambled away by her master.

Wellsted is drawn to the girl by something delicate and yet strong in her demeanour, something almost other worldly that strikes a chord in him.

As master and slave become closer, their journey takes them into danger and heartache...neither of them can know what awaits them in the miasma of the shifting sands.

Secret of the Sands is an all-round winner – a heart-stopping romance and an enthralling adventure that takes us into the heart of real history and real people.

Perfect escapism.

(Avon, paperback, £7.99)