I have often talked of the strange places where I have discovered strange things to partake in, be they YouTube recommendations or Netflix algorithms or /r/FreeEbooks. Here I shall sing of yet another such way: anthologies.
I discovered the work of David Ball through Rogue, an anthology dedicated to the titular archetype edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.
(Side note: any anthology edited by those two is bound to be fantastic. Martin, not only a good judge of stories, is also a great writer of anthology introductions.)
What made this anthology so interesting is that it deliberately spans multiple genres. There are fantasy stories and science-fiction stories and historical stories and various permutations thereof. It boasts such great names as Gillian Flynn and Neil Gaiman and Patrick Rothfuss, but the one that stood out to me was David Ball and his short story Provenance, involving art theft in the ruins of post-World War II Germany. I devoured it, and then everything else he has written (three novels and another short story in another Martin and Dozois anthology).
Of the many writers I have read, I am convinced Ball is the most underrated. I am astounded this man has not achieved wider fame. He writes what one review called “thinking man’s page-turners” and that description is richly deserved. His plots take place in beautifully detailed environments in different times and places, from sixteenth-century Malta to 1990s China, and he uses them as the backdrops for deeply human stories of well-realized people placed in great danger.
His first novel, Empires of Sand (1994), feels like a deliberate throwback to the adventure fiction of the nineteenth century. The plot is sweeping and grand, taking you from the glimmering city of Paris as it is besieged by the Prussians to the Sahara. You take a trip in a balloon and crawl through the catacombs of the French capital and march through the desert with the Flatters expedition: an attempt to chart a railroad path through the Sahara with disastrous results. Ball clearly did his homework. He knows the period well in both Europe and in Africa, and lived among the Tuaregs, a people whose history plays so much of a role in this book, as part of his research.
He never devolves into what Umberto Eco called Salgarism: the tendency to stop the narrative to bloviate on whatever topic the narrator finds interesting. Ball, a former journalist, knows better. His prose is efficient and his plotting is deft. (The best scene in a book of fantastic scenes takes place in a Paris opera house.) People are always at the heart of the story.
The book follows two cousins, Paul and Moussa, one a Frenchman and the other the son of a Frenchman and a Tuareg woman, whose lives are thrown into the vortex of French imperialism in North Africa. This history is that of imperialists and imperialized, metropole and subaltern, visionaries and reactionaries. It is the relationship between these cousins, and with their broader family and with the cultures that have nurtured them and challenged them, that is the core of the story David Ball has to tell.
Empires of Sand can’t technically be called steampunk. I chose it because it is a fantastic adventure tale, and a vivid portrayal of the late nineteenth century. I would advise steampunk authors to read it, though, as it is in many ways something they aspire to: vivid characterization among a well-realized steam-powered backdrop. Something like Empires of Sand is what the genre should strive for.