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Literature / Blood and Sand

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Blood and Sand is a 1987 Historical Fiction novel by Rosemary Sutcliff. During The Napoleonic Wars, Private Thomas Keith of the 78th Highlanders is taken prisoner in Ottoman Egypt. He befriends Tussun Bey, the younger son of the Viceroy Muhammed Ali, and serves their family as a cavalry officer through a power struggle in Egypt and a war in Arabia. It is Very Loosely Based on a True Story.

Takarazuka Revue adapted the novel into a 2008 musical called Love and Death in Arabia or Red Hot Sea.


Not to be confused with Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

Blood and Sand provides examples of:

  • Anyone Can Die: Zeid, Thomas, Anoud, Tussun.
  • Artistic License – History: Thomas's fellow-convert Osman is inspired by a real person, but his English name wasn't Donald MacLeod. He became a dragoman well-known to British travellers, not a doctor.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Averted. Anoud loses a couple of fingers in the sack of Medina.
  • Brave Scot: Thomas is a private of the 78th Highlanders who started life as an Edinburgh gunsmith, but he also has talents in riding, sharpshooting and swordsmanship. The Ottomans decide he's Cavalry Officer material and he ends up as governor of Medina.
  • Breaching the Wall: The Egyptian expedition mines Medina's inner citadel and Thomas is first through the breach. It's one of the plot points attested by historical sources.
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  • The Cavalry: Averted. Thomas and Tussun both fail in the attempt to ride to each other's rescue at El Rass.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Heavily-pregnant Anoud plunges down the stairs and breaks her neck on the same morning that her husband Thomas dies in battle.
  • Decadent Court: The first half of the book takes place in Egypt, where the Ottoman Viceroy Muhammed Ali is trying to bring the country's old slave-soldier aristocracy, the Mamelukes, under his control. He achieves this by slaughtering them all at a banquet. Thomas's personal share in the intrigue is a duel with a spy, a seduction, and an assassination attempt.
  • Duel to the Death: Thomas fights a duel of honour with Aziz Bey, a Mameluke rival for Tussun's favour. He's then arrested for murder by a passing Turkish pasha and has to be rescued by the Vicereine with a spot of Blackmail.
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  • Downer Ending: The Hero Dies, along with his family and friends.
  • Femme Fatale: Lady Nayli, Tussun's sister and a Manipulative Bastard, arranges an assassination for Thomas after finding that she can't overcome Thomas's loyalty to Tussun. Her unofficial punishment is to go through with her distasteful Arranged Marriage. Having already noted that she's frustrated by the lack of an outlet for her brains, the narrative retains some sympathy for her.
  • Friend Versus Lover: Tussun frankly admits he's jealous of Thomas's sudden affection for his wife Anoud.
  • The Fundamentalist: The second half of the novel follows the events of the Ottoman-Saud War, in which the Ottoman Egyptians set out to retake Mecca and Medina from the puritan Wahabi sect of the Arabian interior.
  • Going Native: Thomas is sent to train as an officer among the Bedouin cavalry of Upper Egypt. Under the influence of his friend Zeid, he adopts the Bedouin as his "second people" and eventually converts to Islam.
  • Historical Domain Character: Thomas Keith, "Donald MacLeod," and the various political figures of Egypt and Arabia were real people. Anoud was not.
  • I Choose to Stay: When the British prisoners are repatriated, both Thomas and The Medic Donald MacLeod have discovered better career prospects in Egypt.
  • Kill the Ones You Love: Mameluke conspirators contrive to get the impetuous Tussun drunk and enraged against Thomas. He orders Thomas's assassination. Paradoxically, this brings them closer together, by cancelling Thomas's sense of his debt to Tussun.
  • Last Stand: Thomas leads a small relief force to Tussun's aid at El Rass. He is intercepted by a vastly superior force of Wahabi cavalry. Tussun can't get there in time, and Thomas and his men go out in a Self-Destructive Charge with only the hope of Taking You with Me.
  • Love at First Sight: Thomas and Tussun Bey fall in something like it. Platonically speaking.
  • Made a Slave: Thomas and Donald MacLeod are bought from their captors by a Turkish general until their eventual repatriation. This bothers Thomas less than his Slave Liberation at Tussun's expense, for which he feels indebted.
  • Merchant Prince: Muhammed Ali, Viceroy of Egypt and threat to the Ottoman Sultan, started his career as an Albanian tobacco merchant.
  • Mercy Kill: The Egyptians dispatch their wounded the night before they pull out from Terraba.
  • Mr. Exposition: Thomas's new friends Colonel D'Esurier, the French gunnery adviser, and Zeid ibn Hussein, the Bedouin cavalry captain, to whom Thomas is sent to learn Mounted Combat, Desert Warfare, Arabic, and good manners.
  • "Not Making This Up" Disclaimer: The author's note highlights Thomas's evening spent single-handedly fighting off a pack of assassins before jumping out a window as too implausible to invent.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: Ahmed Bonaparte sacks Medina, and Tussun in turn sacks him.
  • Rescue Romance: Thomas rescues a murdered merchant's daughter named Anoud from being assaulted in the street during the looting of Medina. She has nowhere to go, so they enter into a Perfectly Arranged Marriage.
  • Sacred Hospitality: Muhammed Ali violates it whenever expedient, notably slaughtering the Mamelukes of Cairo at a banquet, arresting the Grand Shariff Ghalid at a meeting, and impaling twelve surrendered Wahabis before the gates of Mecca.
  • Scary Black Man: The most formidable of Sulieman ibn Mansoor's assassins is Mubarak, a huge, silent man given away by his Signature Scent.
  • Shout-Out: Zeid's comment, "We be brothers, you and I," is from The Jungle Book(s) by Rudyard Kipling. Sutcliff echoed it in more than one novel.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Hot-headed Tussun and his elder brother, the coldly capable Ibrahim Pasha.
  • Silk Hiding Steel: Tussun's mother, the Vicereine Amina.
    "A woman who would rule her household so skilfully, the iron hand hidden in its velvet glove, that they would seldom realise that they were being ruled at all. Thomas remembered that she was reputedly the person who, of all those surrounding him, had the most influence over the Viceroy."
  • Sole Survivor: Medhet is unwillingly dispatched ahead of battle to warn Medina of the fate of Thomas's force.
    “I ask a greater courage than I ask of myself or the rest of us. It is easy for us to charge swiftly and gloriously to death among dear comrades; you may have to die slowly and horribly — and alone.”
  • Tactical Withdrawal: The disastrous campaign against the hill fortress of Terraba, occupied by a dreaded female sheikh reputed to be a witch, ends in a Run for the Border.
  • Tagalong Kid: Medhet, a teenage boy among Thomas and Donald's Albanian captors, becomes their protégé and Thomas's junior officer.
  • Trading Bars for Stripes: Turkish general Ahmed Bonaparte buys Thomas and Donald off the Albanians who took them prisoner in order to add their skills to his bodyguard. After verifying that he doesn't want them for something else, they take the offer.
  • Tragic Bromance: Thomas is killed coming to Tussun's relief at El Rass. Tussun ends his campaign, goes home, and dies about a year later.
  • Translation Convention: Thomas speaks English, French, Arabic, and a little Turkish. Tussun and his family speak Albanian, French, Turkish, and some Arabic. In theory, most of the novel takes place in French or Arabic.
  • Trap Is the Only Option: On their first attempt to take Medina, the Egyptian force plans to trigger the inevitable ambush in the Jedaida pass, but they weren't expecting the local tribesmen to be massively reinforced by Wahabi cavalry.
  • You Shall Not Pass!: On the retreat from Terraba, Thomas recaptures a gun and turns it on their pursuers long enough to cover the Egyptians' escape through the pass into neutral territory.


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