The Empty Quarter

Empty Quarter, David RobbinsWritten by David L Robbins — What an exciting adventure combining military and medical thriller elements! It takes place in the Rub’ al-Khali, which translates as The Empty Quarter of the title. It’s the world’s largest desert and it occupies most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula. People are scarce, and if this book’s anything to go by the ones who do live there, well you wouldn’t want to meet them anyway.

It’s a multiple point-of-view novel, told mostly from the perspectives of members of a US Air Force pararescuemen team. They’re the PJs and their combined military-medical mission is to rescue personnel using force, if necessary. They are have a full array of military equipment and advanced communications technologies at their disposal.

The book starts with a flashback to an episode two years earlier, in which the PJ team rescued several injured British commandos who were pinned down by enemy fire in the Helmand area of Afghanistan. It’s an exciting 20 pages that gives a clear picture of the challenges this PJ team faces and their reactions under fire, though it is oddly unrelated to the rest of the novel.

Leading the PJs are Wally, the team’s lead combat rescue officer; Little Bastard (LB), a master sergeant; and Berkowitz a combat rescue officer on his first mission. The motto of this branch of service is ‘That Others May Live’ and Robbins effectively describes the team members’ dedication to that mission, despite their differences in personality and temperament.

We also read the point of view of Arif, a middle-aged Saudi man whose wife Nadya is a member of the Saudi royal family. Her father, Prince Hassan bin Abd al-Aziz is the country’s head of security. At one time Arif was an al Qaeda fighter in Afghanistan, and he hates the hypocritical Saudi elite. He’s fallen out with his father-in-law, and he and Nadya are in hiding in the tiny Yemeni town of Ma’rib. Robbins portrays their mutual devotion quite movingly.

A third key point of view is that of Josh Cofield, a former Army Ranger, assigned to the American Embassy in the Yemeni capital Sana’a. Everyone, the ambassador included, erroneously believes Josh is CIA, because he is awkward as a diplomat, a bit of a bull in a china shop, but fluent in Arabic.

When an attempt is made on Prince Aziz’s life, he blames the exiled Arif. He wants his son-in-law dead and his daughter returned to him. The fault of the attempted assassination actually lay at the feet of a man named Ghalib, the youngest and most reckless of seven brothers, who fancies himself a jihadi and betrayed Arif. The Saudis want American help in achieving their revenge on Arif, but the Americans cannot do so unless an American life is somehow threatened. A plan begins to take shape in diabolical minds.

Josh is given the assignment of accompanying a woman across the desert to the Saudi border where she will rejoin her family, as is her wish. Or so he’s told. The Saudis bank on the likelihood Arif will emerge from hiding to follow his wife. What they don’t expect is that Ghalib and his brothers will take on Arif’s cause as a way to restore family honour. Meanwhile the PJ team is on alert at its base outside Djibouti in case Josh signals he’s run into difficulty.

The book includes helpful maps of the region. What’s not so helpful is the over use of military jargon, which goes beyond authenticity and into the realm of confusion. A glossary might have worked, and keeping the jargon to the dialogue rather than mixing it into the narrative as well.

The wild chase across the desert in the middle of the night occupies the last half of the book. Part of Robbins’s skill is in avoiding making any of the principal players obvious bad guys. They’re complex characters with conflicting goals, and all doing their best to resolve an impossible situation. Success in this will require Josh to be the diplomat and Berkowitz the leader neither is sure he is.

Thomas & Mercer
Print/Kindle
£8.60

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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