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Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia Hardcover – October, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

Throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, the Russian and British Empires played out a chess game of diplomacy, espionage, and military thrusts into Central Asia to protect their expanding interests. When play began, the frontiers of their empires lay 2,000 miles apart, across vast deserts and almost impassable mountain ranges; by the end, they were separated by only 20 miles. Karl E. Meyer of The New York Times and Shareen Blair Brysac, documentary filmmaker for CBS, update and significantly expand earlier studies of the imperial rivalry, notably Peter Hopkirk's pioneering The Great Game. Tournament of Shadows reads like a racy adventure story, yet there is no need for the authors to embellish their well-researched facts. The region attracted a host of bizarre characters, each with his own idiosyncratic goals. The authors begin with the journey to Bokhara of an ambitious horse doctor, hired by the East India Company in 1806 to improve its breeding stock, and end with the CIA's assistance to anti-Chinese guerrillas in Tibet during the cold war. American participants in the opening of Central Asia have not previously received much attention, but Tournament of Shadows introduces adventurers such as William Rockhill, commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution in the 1880s to explore Tibet, and William McGovern, who, to the chagrin of the British, reached Lhasa in 1923. The wealth and instability of Central Asia continue to keep the region in the headlines, motivating the Soviet Union's disastrous 10-year intervention in Afghanistan and fueling an international race for resources--especially oil--today. --John Stevenson

From Publishers Weekly

Equal parts geopolitical intrigue and quest for Shangri-la, the Great Game was the imperialist duel for influence in Central Asia that occupied the best and the brightest of the Russian and British empires through the entire 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. In this detailed narrative from Meyer (former London bureau chief for the Washington Post) and Brysac (a producer for CBS News), the story of the Great Game is told from the perspective of the explorers, soldiers and archeologists (many of whom frequently doubled as spies) who planted their nations' flags in the steppes and mountain passes of Afghanistan, Turkestan and Tibet. Among the colorful characters portrayed are William Moorcroft, the East India Company stable master who trekked to fabled Bokhara to purchase horses for the British cavalry, and SS officer Ernst Schafer, who led a German expedition to Tibet in search of a lost Aryan homeland. Notably missing is the viewpoint of the native inhabitants, though Meyer and Brysac do express admiration for the "pundits," the Indian explorers immortalized in Kipling's imperialist epic, Kim, who surveyed regions where Europeans feared to tread. A passing familiarity with Central Asian history would serve readers well, but even those who don't know a Gurkha from a yurt will get the gist. An impressive feat of historical synthesis that draws on sources ranging from published biographies to secret memos buried in the archives of the East India Company, this rousing history is written with some of the ?lan exhibited by the most stylish participants in the Great Game itself. (Nov.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 671 pages
  • Publisher: Counterpoint; 1st Printing edition (October 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1582430284
  • ISBN-13: 978-1582430287
  • Product Dimensions: 2.2 x 6.5 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,303,730 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

41 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Rodney Meek VINE VOICE on February 12, 2001
Format: Paperback
Having read Peter Hopkirk's "The Great Game", I was intrigued by the subject of the imperial machinations between Britain and Russia in Central Asia in the 19th century. The intrigues and maneuvers and subterfuge between the two opponents indeed offer some interesting insights into the development of the 20th century's Cold War and into the conduct of colonial powers and their proxy wars. Much of this, however, has faded from the public's historical consciousness.
Famous in their time, the explorers and military leaders of that place and time have now slipped into footnotes and obscure scholarly treatises. And of course, those figures who by necessity had to operate far more clandestinely on their secret missions are now almost wholly forgotten. Only the high points remain barely remembered, events like the Afghan Wars.
"Tournament of Shadows" is a good survey of the confrontations between Russia and Britain in India, Tibet, and Afghanistan. The book, like the figures on whom it reports, covers a lot of ground, dealing with the earliest Western penetrations into Central Asia and ending with events in post-WWII Tibet. A huge cast of characters is introduced, including men and women from England, Czarist and Soviet Russia, India, the U.S., and Germany. A great many significant developments are discussed, along with amusing and interesting side treks into historical minutiae.
The book's breezy, even gossipy, style is both its strength and weakness. Readers who don't want to delve too deeply into any one aspect of this fascinating period won't get bogged down by extended analyses. And certainly, the layperson will find out quite a few tidbits about the personal and private lives of quite a few people.
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Frank J. Konopka VINE VOICE on March 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I'm a big fan of Peter Hopkirk's works on the Great Game, so buying this book was a no-brainer! It covers a lot of the same ground as Hopkirk did, but does go into some ancillary episodes, and comes up to date more than his. I agree with one of the other reviewers that better, and better-anotated, maps would have helped readers who became confused with exactly where some of the places mentioned are located, but I didn't let it detract from the exjoyment I received from this book. It's an excellent addition to the books on the great Game, and I welcome it.
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38 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Jonathan P. Scoll on January 26, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The nineteenth-century experience of the Westerner in Asia, the perspective of the humblest individual, was never better depicted than by Rudyard Kipling, novelist and poet of empire. In the case of Afghanistan, his advice to "The Young British Soldier" was short and stark:
"When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier."
If Kipling had been better studied in Moscow, the Soviet Union might still be around today. Its ten year losing war in Afghanistan was a large contributor to its demise.
In 1839, in an earlier, and similarly ill-considered intervention, and with an eye on what they thought were Czarist Russian designs in the region, the British marched an army of over 20,000 from India, over unmapped mountain passes, into Afghanistan. Three years later, a single survivor returned to Jalalabad, on a limping horse, to tell the tale. Britain learned the lesson, and never again sought direct conquest of the country. Thenceforth, her power in the region would be projected by more indirect means.
With this, Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac set the stage for their masterful account, of Great Power rivalry - Victorian statesmen termed it "The Great Game" -- for political dominance of inner Asia, the land along the ancient Silk Route. Britain, its erstwhile rival, Czarist Russia, and (later, and to a lesser extent) Germany and the United States, all "played it through" as the authors note, using the language of the greatest of British (and Indian and Pakistani) games, cricket.
Much of the Game revolved around maps.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Eric Snyder on June 7, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As someone who knew little of the history of Central Asia and the Great Game, I found this book to be a very enjoyable introduction to the topic. The authors basically devote each chapter to a prominent event or person of the time, and then use that topic to fill in a very general history of the era. The writing style is light and anecdotal. While sometimes the sheer number of characters floating in and out of the picture can be overwhelming, I did not find the book to be bogged down in minutia, as one reviewer mentioned. I agree with many of the reviewers that the maps are insufficient to help a reader trace the course of the narrative. I also did not notice the bias against Sven Hedin and others that one reviewer mentioned. Hedin received a full chapter on his exploits, about the same as most of the main characters in the book. If you approach this book as a series of 20 or so short, light biographies on some major players of the era, and as an introduction not a deifinitive account, you should be very well pleased.
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