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The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia - Peter Hopkirk I liked this a lot, although I think the relevance to events today has been overplayed a bit by some other reviewers: it's better enjoyed as a stirring history than a political primer.

I knew a little about the Great Game before – that 19th-century wrangling over Central Asia between Britain and Russia – but I hadn't appreciated before how motivated both sides were, in Britain's case because they feared encroachment on their ‘jewel of the Empire’, British India, and in Russia's case because they were hell-bent on expanding their influence as far as possible. But the real joy here is in the Boy's-Own adventuring of some of the principal players – ambitious explorer-spies who headed off the map and into a world of mountain fortresses, Himalayan snowstorms, Russian ambushes, gruelling sieges, and daring gunfights. At stake was a barely-known network of independent city-states whose rulers were befriended, betrayed, and played off one another by the two major powers in an attempt to win influence and ascendancy in the area.

It would take a hard-hearted reader not to feel some pangs of awe and excitement at some of the derring-do here, however much you are made aware of the cynical political game-playing behind it all. Hopkirk tells his story engagingly, if occasionally dropping into some speculative scene-setting (‘As he donned a long quilted coat and black lambskin hat, the two men with him watched in silence’ – how do you know?). There are narrative problems – it covers a long period, and the book is necessarily somewhat episodic, with rather little of the political background filled in – but on the whole, the episodes are so extraordinary that it's hard to mind too much.

I'd be interested to see a update of some of this – when it came out the Soviet Union was still in place, and it would be good to know which previously-hidden records on the Russian side have now become available. Until then, it's a great primer on a fascinating period of imperial history.

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Emir Abd El-Kader: Hero and Saint of Islam
Gustavo Polit, Eric Geoffroy, Ahmed Bouyerdene
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