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.)
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