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Paperback Land of Marvels Book

ISBN: 0393335526

ISBN13: 9780393335521

Land of Marvels

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Book Overview

In this masterful work of historical fiction set during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, the schemes of Western powers grappling for a foothold in Mesopotamia come vividly to life. English archaeologist John Sommerville begins excavating a historical site, believing he has uncovered a find that will revolutionize his field. But when the Germans threaten his dig with their railroad, he hires an Arab spy, not recognizing the spies dwelling in his...

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

A Fireball of a Story

It's 1914 and thirty-five-year-old British archaeologist John Sommerville has taken his inheritance and sunk it into his life's dream of uncovering the glory of the Assyrian civilization and its kings in Mesopotamia (now called Iraq). But sadly things haven't been going so well for Sommerville, he's been at it for three seasons and has almost nothing to show for his work. He has hope, but it's about to be dashed by a German railway which is destined to go smack through his dig and nobody seems to care. And that's because the British believe war is coming soon, so they're not about to get involved trying to stop a German railroad, but that doesn't mean that Sommerville won't keep on trying to save his dig, even if it means dealing with officials who lie, oil men who want to rape the country and governments preparing for war as Constantinople is losing it's grip on Mesopotamia. This book has it all, including a fireball of an ending you just won't believe. There's deceit, double dealing and betrayal here aplenty. There is frustration and suspense, too. Great characters abound here as well. And the story, that's good too, plus you'll learn a bit about history and maybe you'll wind up understanding a bit better about how we got where we are in the middle east in this gripping read.

"He who owns the oil will own the world, he will rule the sea and the land, he will rule his fellowm

(4.5 stars) Mesopotamia, once the site of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, boasted vibrant civilizations four thousand years before the Christian Era, and the ruins of these civilizations, many of them buried for six thousand years, dot the countryside. By 1914, when this novel opens, Mesopotamia (Iraq) is being ruled from Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire. Virtually every European country is in Iraq, however, waiting for the weakened Ottoman Empire to fall. The Germans are building a railroad from Basra through Baghdad to Constantinople, and they may excavate along the track, through vast oil fields. An American from Standard Oil is on site, the French are making noises, and the Russians and the Austro-Hungarian Empire hope to profit. With World War I looming, the need for oil and chrome ore (to make armor-piercing weapons) is pressing, and everyone sees Iraq as a source of materiel. Trying to ignore this turmoil is John Somerville, a thirty-five-year-old archaeologist who has been working for three years at Tell Erdek, an ancient site near Baghdad that has so far yielded few artifacts. A broken piece of ivory, a carved flat stone, a reconstructed clay tablet with writing, and the beginning of a wall made of kiln-fired bricks are all that Somerville has to show for three years of work. Unfortunately, his excavations are in the path of the German-built railroad, and he is running out of money. As Somerville tries to protect "his" dig, he must deal with the Turks, and with deceitful British entrepreneurs and officials. The British believe that war is coming, and they are not going to interfere against the German railroad, even if it means the destruction of unique archaeological artifacts. As Booker Prize winner Barry Unsworth explores conflicts, deceits, and betrayals on all levels, he creates memorable characters, both on the dig at Tell Erdek and in the wider world. Love stories and affairs among those on the archaeological team reveal as much about deceit and betrayal on a small scale as does the duplicitous behavior of financiers and governments on a grand scale. No one can trust anyone else. Unsworth creates a vibrant picture of a tumultuous time and place, endowing what might have been an exotic tale of archaeological discovery with a broader thematic scope. The action never flags as the points of view change from Somerville's excavation, to life at the team's headquarters, to the courtship of Jehan the informer, to government officials and financiers. As artifacts reveal the fate of the ancient "palace" and its inhabitants, Somerville is able to identify the seventh century BC ruler (or his double--another possible deceit). Those familiar with ancient art history, archaeological procedures, and the culture of the Babylonians and Assyrians will be thrilled by the details of Somerville's discoveries. Those with little interest in these subjects may find the technical details challenging, if not tedious. n Mary Whip

rich and satisfying

There's a fine recent nonfiction work "Setting the Desert on Fire: T.E. Lawrence and Britain's Secret War in Arabia, 1916=1918" which provides a fascinating look at politics and duplicity in the Middle East by Britain and other world powers. Britain (and other countries) readily made promises that they never had any intention of honoring. Much of this is reflected in Unsworth's Land of Marvels. Somerville is a British archaeologist working at a dig in Iraq in the spring of 1914. He lives for his work and hopes for recognition and financing. The dig lies in the path of the German-financed railroad to Baghdad and Basra, and the Turks have given the Germans mineral rights for 20 kilometers on each side of the railroad. The Germans plan the route to exploit mineral resources, the Turks look forward to being able to move troops in wartime. Somerville's life is complicated by the oncoming railroad, and it gets further complicated by British interests who couldn't care less about Somerville's work. There's the British Major Manning, who is surveying and is basically an intelligence agent. There's the British ambassador to Turkey, and the shadowy Rampling representing business interests, and Rampling and the ambassador place an American petroleum geologist with Somerville, ostensibly as an archaeologist, but actually to spy out petroleum potential along the railroad route. The American also represents US oil companies. So there's a very complex plethora of agendas here, all working at cross-purposes. Somerville is small-time, sacrificial and expendable for the larger interests involved. Unsworth gives an excellent portrayal of an archaeologist at his dig, and he also does a fine job with the other characters--this is a rich, complex, and satisfying novel. Somerville can see a part of the larger picture--he has his own person out spying on the progress of the railroad. But he cannot see just how inconsequential he himself is in the larger picture. The novel reminded me of some of the works by Graham Greene where little people are caught up in the large torrents and eddies that swirl around them. This is certainly one of Unsworth's better novels.


This is very fine historical fiction. It is very timely. Although set in the recent past, at the time of World War I in Europe, the author places readers at the heart of the Middle East, which for many is still known as the fertile crescent or the center of civilization. He expounds knowledgeably on such geographic areas as the Mesopotamian civilization (now Iraq), with extensive discussions on the origins and development of Sumerian cultures, the Hittites, the Semites, the Akkadians and the Babylonians. Between Baghdad and Constantinople, the author "travels" between what, due to current events, have become familiar places. His prose style is clear and precise; it lacks that obscurity that has become part of modern fiction,, especially in those works which employ magical realism and rich, if not fascinating, cultural references that can make reading an arduous undertaking. In contrast, Unsworth writes in prose more familiar to reading of nonfiction or of contemporary mysteries; that is, he is accessible and pleasurable easy to read. The story revolves around a British archaeologist who is working on an excavation of a long-buried Assyrian palace. The search for historical objects clashes with the rich for oil, with a geologist in conflict with the scholar. High and low ambitions do battle in the sands of time. This is a thriller that is worth reading, as fiction just for fun, or as fascinating background to our current political conflicts in that part of the world.

How Things Fall Apart

King oil, Iraq and the chess game of imperialistic "diplomacy." The elements may sound familiar, but author Barry Unsworth travels back to 1914 when the Ottoman Empire was in the closing act on the world stage and would soon be carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey in the aftermath of World War One (Iraq was created in 1920 by a League of Nations mandate and under the protection of the United Kingdom). The historical novel focuses on the already strong push by the Western super powers to gain a strong and lasting presence in the region as the empire was teetering on the brink of irrelevancy. In the eye of the storm is archeologist John Somerville, who is looking to catch lightning in a jar with the excavation of site that is - unfortunately for him - directly in the path of a railway to Baghdad that is being financed by German interests. The dig yields an ancient palace/tomb, but Somerville is looking at time quickly ticking away and his dream of worldwide fame being buried forever. Swirling around Somerville's crew are a number of people who have ulterior motives; his wife has strong feelings that the marriage is over, with her knight being the American "archeologist" and Jehar, a swindler with a smile, who delivers a number of bogus messages concerning the railway construction as he hopes to create an unbeatable gambit for the most powerful players. The American "archeologist" is actually an oil company geologist who befriends Somerville, but is in a race to find liquid gold in the ground. And with others not so covert prepared to converge on the land, Somerville may become a pawn in a contest where his life is a worthless commodity. With bureaucrats aplenty - and all working their own angles - greed becomes king in a violent conclusion where only the strong will truly live another day to fight the growing resource wars. Through believable characters and a plot that swirls with intrigue, Unsworth depicts the huge appetites of forces bent on manipulation in the present, no matter what the consequences bring in the future, since the victors will confidently (re)write the history.
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