For those who don’t already know, Theo Clare is a pseudonym of British thriller writer Mo Hayder, Hayder itself being a pseudonym for Clare Dunkle. The Book of Sand, a very different enterprise from her works as Hayder, was written over the previous four years. The Book of Sand is a fantasy novel with big questions on its mind of life, death, afterlife and purpose. Theo Clare died midway through 2021 from an aggressive form of motor neuron disease. So while The Book of Sand is clearly the first of a planned series it is unknown whether any material for further volumes exist and if so whether some of the big questions that the book poses will ever be answered.
The first half of The Book of Sand takes place in two very different realities. In a strange desert world, a young Frenchman called Spider finds himself thrown together with a found family. Their task is to work together to find a location called the ‘Sarkpoint’ within a limited amount of time. They do this by exploring the nearby cities, all of which seem to have been transplanted from our world and dropped together into this desert one such that a half buried Dubai is only a few kilometres from an abandoned Phoenix. But the family has to be careful as every couple of nights the Djinni, maleficent bloodthirsty spirits, roam the desert hunting for them. There are also rival ‘families’ charged with the same task and they have been told that only one can succeed. Meanwhile, in what appears to be our world, teenager Macenzie is having visions and hallucinations which result in her being taken to see a psychiatrist and being put on anti-psychotic drugs. But despite attempts to normalise her, Macenzie links up with someone who has similar visions and the two try to get to the bottom of their shared affliction sending her on her own dubious adventure.
As can be seen from the preceding paragraph, there is a lot to set up here including plenty of world building. And yet Clare is still able to make reading the book feel like an exploration, as if the desert world is opening up to the reader in the same way it does for Spider and his family. Despite this some explanations, particularly those that try to explore the relationship between the desert world and our world, are sketchy at best and completely unknowable at worst. And while there was clearly another volume planned, the ending does not only not answer these questions but, if anything, poses new ones.
There is no requirement for adventure-based fantasy to have a reason to exist. But the very nature of this book, having a relationship to our world, and the religions and specific places in it, will constantly have readers asking: why? Why has this random group of people been put together as a family? Is there any relationship with who they have been placed with and who they were in our world? Why do they have to find this particular place? Why is the desert area they are made of up of real-world desert cities? What happens if the family break the rules? Why are the other families so antagonistic? What role does religion play in this world (much is made of prayer and places of worship)?
While The Book Of Sand can be read as a kind of quest story, Clare seems to be striving for it to be something more. It is just hard to determine what that something is. And while it is no doubt unique, this tends to make the whole endeavour more often frustrating rather than enjoyable.