Tournament of Shadows – The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Asia – Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac

Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia, is a real labour of love by husband and wife team Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac, and is the result of many years travel and research on their behalf. So top marks for effort then, and the book is a physically impressive, weighty and voluminous tome. The actual content though, while certainly very entertaining and interesting in places, is unfortunately a bit lacking. I am always wary of books that are co-written, as they always have a higher than normal potential to be lacking in coherency and narrative structure. This is unfortunately the case here.

Tournament of Shadows describes the so-called “Great Game”, as played out between England and Russia mostly, and later America and Germany, which was essentially a 19th century Cold War struggle for conquest and control of Central Asia, i.e. Afghanistan, Tibet, Mongolia etc.

This really was a fascinating period, with the tapestry of its history decorated with spies, warlords, Indian Jones-style adventurers, treachery and wars, and consequently being littered with the many bodies of these violent events. The authors choose to tell the tale through what is essentially mini-biographies of the main characters and protagonists of the period, and whilst some characters are truly fascinating and worthy of such attention, others are maybe not. Plus, overall it sort of detracts from the overall plot or theme, and probably is not a suitable vehicle for telling this epic tale.

However, there are some notable highlights in this book, such as the remarkable and incredible life of William Moorcroft, the English spy, explorer and adventurer extraordinaire, who incognito as a Hindu pilgrim crossed the Hindu kush (and whose disguise included a constantly muddied face to hide his Western features) was the first Westerner to explore the then secret Kingdom of Tibet, among many other famed exploits.

Also particularly noteworthy was the description and detailing of the doomed Army of The Indus expedition/invasion of Afghanistan in 1839, where from the entire British army that marched in, and apart from women and children kept as slaves, only a single soldier (Dr. William Brydon) escaped with his life from the shooting gallery that was the Bolan Pass, and other Afghan ravines. Better yet, he was then accused of deserting, despite arriving back at British lines severely wounded and clinging desperately to his horse’s neck. The depiction of the slave city of Samarkand was revealing too, and much of this history was new to me, I must admit.

Unfortunately though, there is too much insignificant detail scattered throughout this book for my liking, with no definite link or narrative between chapters. The result is a book which you can dip in and out of, or even skim over a lot of the content in order to get to the meaty parts, which is a shame, as the authors clearly know their subject here – they just failed in assembling it optimally.

I think its worth a read, it is definitely interesting and it covers what would probably be a period of history not particularly well known in the West – there’s also a lot of detail on the Anglo-Sikh wars in India and the Punjab, as well as the Boxer Rebellion in China, plus the ultimate abandoning of Tibet by Western powers (GB and USA) post World War II – which is great, but the overall literary package is a bit of a hodge-podge. I believe the superior work on the Great Game is The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia by Peter Hopkirk – its on my Amazon Wish List!

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