Review: “Sahara” By Clive Cussler (Novel)

Well, this seems to be turning into a bit of a series! So, for my next Clive Cussler novel review, I thought that I’d take a look at one from 1992 called “Sahara” from the small pile of Cussler novels that my uncle lent me.

Despite this novel’s gargantuan length (655 pages in the edition I read), I chose to read this book next because of both the cool-looking cover art and the fact that it was apparently turned into a Hollywood movie in 2005. Although I haven’t seen the film adaptation, it’s very existence made me curious about the book it was based on.

So, without any further ado, let’s take a look at Sahara”. Needless to say, this review will contain SPOILERS.

This is the 1994 Harper Collins (UK) paperback reprint of “Sahara” that I read.

“Sahara” begins during the later stages of the American Civil War when the armoured Confederate steamship Texas is making a last-ditch bid to escape the United States with the Confederacy’s archives and an important Union prisoner. As it travels along a river to the sea, it is battered by every piece of lead that the Union ships can throw at it, yet it remains in one piece as it breaks a naval blockade and disappears into the ocean…

The story then flashes forward to the 1930s, when famed Australian aviator Kitty Mannock is making an unprecedented and celebrated solo flight across the Sahara Desert. However, she flies into a sandstorm and crashes into the desert. Luckily, she survives the crash and decides to hike towards a desert road quite some distance away…

The story then flashes forward to 1996, where a tourist group in Mali finally reach the remote village of Asselar. However, something is wrong. The village seems to be deserted. Whilst searching the village, the ex-military tour guide is suddenly attacked by a frenzied teenager. Within minutes, the rest of the villagers emerge – also gripped by some kind of zombie virus. Needless to say, things don’t go well…

Meanwhile, in Egypt, a UN scientist called Eva Rojas is relaxing by the beach when she is suddenly attacked by mysterious assassins. Luckily for Eva, Dirk Pitt (a high-ranking member of a US maritime agency called NUMA) happens to be nearby and he makes short work of the assassins. Needless to say, Pitt and Eva get along well before going their separate ways when duty calls.

However, during Pitt’s archaeological expedition on the Nile, he receives an urgent message from Admiral Sandecker ordering him and his buddies Al Giordino and Rudi Gunn to return to a US vessel off the coast to be briefed about a top secret mission of global importance……

One of the first things that I will say about “Sahara” is that it is a book that gets better as it goes along. Although it starts with some rather dramatic opening chapters, the pace then slows somewhat for a while. But, if you can slog your way through some rather turgid and jargon-heavy scientific/environmental lectures and some slower-paced segments, then you’ll be rewarded with some spectacularly thrilling drama later in the novel.

When it wants to be, this book is more than cinematic at times. Whether it’s the vaguely “Apocalypse Now”*-like scenes set on a river in Africa, or a dramatic prison escape-style scene set in an underground mine, or Pitt and Giordino’s epic trek across the Sahara or the frenetic military drama of the later segments of the book, this novel is absolutely spectacular when it lets itself be. As action scenes go, this novel comes close to the excellent “Zero Hour” in terms of spectacular drama, possibly even surpassing it during the later scenes.

(* And, yes, I know that Conrad’s “Heart Of Darkness” might seem like a better comparison. But, the military/combat elements of these scenes reminded me a lot more of “Apocalypse Now”.)

But, although the slower-paced parts of this book do make the fast-paced scenes seem more thrilling by contrast, the novel really could have done with a bit more editing.

If this novel had been trimmed down to 400-500 pages, then it would really be something! Yes, the novel’s pacing is mostly good, but the first quarter to half of the book can be a real slog at times. Still, this is a novel that rewards dogged perseverance with one of the most dramatic closing segments that I’ve read in a while. Seriously, the last 150-200 pages or so are pulse-poundingly, nail bitingly spectacular.

In addition to this, “Sahara” also contains a lot of suspense too. Although this is often really gripping, some suspenseful scenes are drawn out for slightly too long – to the point where it makes the main characters seem slightly immortal (eg: Pitt and Giordino surviving a ridiculously long time in a scorching desert without water), which ironically lessens the suspense slightly. Still, this aside, “Sahara” often makes expert use of suspense – especially during the later parts of the story.

One clever thing about “Sahara” is that it is a nautical adventure that revolves around a desert. Although this is mostly achieved by including nautical elements in the scenes that don’t take place in the desert, some of the desert-based scenes contain nautical elements in rather surprising ways. Since I don’t want to spoil the best one, I’ll point out that one of the other ways that this is achieved is in how the scenes of characters being stranded in the desert are thematically similar to characters being lost at sea.

The story’s sub-plots are a bit of a mixed bag. In addition to a fairly predictable romantic sub-plot and a spy-based sub-plot that doesn’t really seem to add that much to the story, there’s also a really interesting archaeological sub-plot. Yet, despite this being a really brilliant sub-plot, it almost seems to be unconnected to the main plot and only really shows up properly in a few later parts of the novel.

In terms of the actual writing, it’s reasonably good. Compared to Cussler’s novels from the 1970s, the narration is a little bit more snappier and faster-paced, whilst still containing just enough descriptions to add some lush vividness to the story. Yes, the dialogue occasionally includes some rather stodgy lectures and “1990s Star Trek”-like data-dumps, but a fair amount of the dialogue is well-written and dramatic.

Likewise, whilst the characters are a little bit stylised (eg: the evil despot/dictator, the posh British UN officer, the sophisticated French villain, the wise-cracking heroes etc..), they thankfully never quite reach the level of two-dimensional cartoonishness that the characters in Cussler’s “Iceberg” (1975) sink to. In other words, the characters in this novel are reasonably ok. They aren’t spectacular, but they’re still just about characters rather than cartoons.

Like with Cussler’s “Iceberg”, this novel definitely has a bit of a grittier edge to it. Whether it is the almost splatterpunk-like scenes of horror in Asselar, the harsh unforgiving Sahara desert or both the chilling cruelty of the villains and the equally cruel poetic justice that gets meted out to them, this novel has a mean streak a mile wide. But, like with a good horror novel, you’ll probably want to keep reading it of grim curiosity.

Still, this cruel atmosphere is lightened by a few moments of comedy (such as Giordino flying the Jolly Roger on the team’s secret research boat) and a rather amusing little cameo by none other than Clive Cussler himself. Although author inserts are usually eye-rollingly pretentious, this one adds a bit of warmth and friendliness to a rather bleak and suspenseful segment of the novel, and is most welcome.

However, as you might expect from an older Clive Cussler novel, this novel is somewhat on the “politically incorrect” side of things – with some moments, descriptions, connotations, attitudes and scenes that will probably seem a bit awkward and/or dated when read today.

But, like with the other older Clive Cussler novels I’ve read, if you can overlook the dated, “politically incorrect” and/or awkward elements of the story, then you’ll be rewarded with a gripping tale. Even so, this story probably hasn’t aged that well.

All in all, this book is brilliant, but flawed. Yes, it would be better if an editor had trimmed about 100-200 pages and, again, it hasn’t aged well. But, if you can get past these flaws, then treasure awaits you!

When it wants to, this novel can reach spectacular heights of drama, thrills and suspense that can’t really be matched by any movie. Which is probably why I haven’t seen the film adaptation of “Sahara” yet. It would probably be a disappointment compared to the book.

If I had to give this novel a rating out of five, it would possibly get a four. During the best moments, it is a solid five. During the worst moments, it is a two. So, it averages out at about four or so.

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