EMPIRES OF SAND

By David Ball

Bantam. 561 pp. $23.95

David Ball's mammoth debut novel has all the necessary ingredients to allow the reader to while away the hours on a comfortable sofa as the nights darken earlier with the approach of fall. Its protagonist, Count Henri deVries, born to the wealth of an old French family whose men had made their mark in the military, breaks with tradition, devoting himself to exploring vast and virtually unknown areas of the world.

The author wastes no time in plunging deVries, along with his manservant, Gascon, into adventure. Aloft in a balloon over the Atlas Mountains of North Africa, heading toward Morocco, they are forced to make a crash landing in the desert. Soon they are confronted by a small band of Tuaregs, a nomadic people resplendent atop their camels and cloaked in indigo and white robes that cover all but their eyes. Only one is without a mask: Serena, a fiery, intelligent beauty, sister of the amenokal, or sultan, of the Tuaregs, and eventually deVries's wife.

The villain of "Empires of Sand" is Marius Murat, bishop of Boulogne-Billancourt, who became a priest for the wrong reasons. A sullen and moody youth, he searched endlessly for a way out of poverty. Attending a Mass conducted by the archbishop of Paris in Notre Dame Cathedral, he was overwhelmed by the pomp and wealth on display. With a shortage of priests in 19th-century France (partly a result of the Revolution), Murat sensed the possibility of rapid advancement. Though totally irreligious, he became a priest and sought power ruthlessly, even stooping to murder and sexual corruption. In 1870, on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War, Bishop Murat finally meets his match in Serena, who has settled in Paris as the count's wife. When Murat tries for the umpteenth time to force Serena to embrace the Catholic faith, she lashes out at him: "The difference between you and a scorpion, Priest, is that a scorpion has no artifice. You see the tail, and you have seen the scorpion. I see the cross around your neck, yet I have not seen you. Your tail is well hidden."

Ball contrasts the lavish entertainments among the upper echelons of Paris society with the precise and methodical preparations of Prince Otto von Bismarck, prime minister of Prussia, as he prepares to trick and tempt France into declaring war on Prussia. In the resulting conflict, Paris is besieged. At the same time, Serena and the bishop have a final confrontation, the outcome of which forces the deVries family to flee in a balloon to her people in the Sahara.

With this change of locale comes a shift in focus, to Henri and Serena's son Moussa, who has left behind in Paris his cousin and best friend, Paul deVries. Through the following years the boys write long letters to each other--none of which is received by the other. Another schemer, Paul's mother, acts as interceptor in the hope that after 10 years of silence from the count and his family she could apply to the courts of France to declare them dead, giving title to their vast properties to her son.

Meanwhile the French government has agreed to send an expeditionary force to the Sahara to explore the possibility of building a railroad, and Paul, now a lieutenant in the army, has joined the group. After the French disregard warnings to stay out, the Tuaregs attack the expeditionary force--in a battle that puts the two cousins on opposite sides. The story never lags as Ball switches the narrative back and forth from Moussa to Paul. They have their moments of triumph but many more of hardship as each suffers terrible ordeals and has to face his demon.

This may be Ball's first novel, but it is expertly told and leaves a lasting impression.

Brian Jacomb, who frequently reviews historical fiction.