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Land of Marvels

3.20  ·  Rating details ·  657 ratings  ·  140 reviews
Barry Unsworth, a writer with an almost magical capacity for literary time travel (New York Times Book Review) has the extraordinary ability to re-create the past and make it relevant to contemporary readers. In Land of Marvels, a thriller set in 1914, he brings to life the schemes and double-dealings of Western nations grappling for a foothold in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) in ...more
Hardcover, 287 pages
Published January 6th 2009 by Nan A. Talese (first published December 24th 2008)
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Average rating 3.20  · 
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 ·  657 ratings  ·  140 reviews

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Algernon (Darth Anyan)
Feb 02, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2012
[9/10] Powerful storytelling from Barry Unsworth, focused on a more recent historical period than Songs of Kings or Morality Play. The Land of Marvels here is northern Mesopotamia, on the eve of World War I, a place rich in history and rich in mineral resources. Empires have fought over it for millennia, and looking at today events they are still fighting over it.

What struck me about this story is a sense of fatalism, of ants caught in a storm, going about their personals obsessions while the
In the early part of the 20th century many foreign interests intersected in the Middle East. Barry Unsworth sketches with preternatural skill a British archeologist fruitlessly toiling for years over a dig he finds it increasingly difficult to sustain financially. The stresses added by German railroad and American petroleum contractors encroaching on his stake which he is desperate to believe will yield results shortly is too real for comfort.

The years leading up to the Great War in Europe were
Apr 02, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jan 21, 2009 rated it did not like it
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Description: In 1914, an English archaeologist called Somerville is fulfilling a lifelong dream - to direct an excavation in the desert of Mesopotamia.

Yet forces beyond his control threaten his work. The Great War is looming, and various interest groups - Turkish, German, English and American - are vying for control over the land and its strategic and economic prizes. The Germans are securing trade routes with a new railway; a major in the Royal Engineers is working undercover, secretly mapping
Thom Dunn
Barry Unsworth continues to create impressively detailed historical novels, each on a singular period in history when the British figured heavily...if not always at their most laudable. Each of his books makes me want to read all the others again. And I have.
Jim Leffert
Mar 14, 2010 rated it it was ok
This is the second book Ive read by this author. Like the previous one, The Ruby in Her Navel, this book deals with the collision between Europe and the Arab world. This time, the collision takes place not in medieval Sicily but in early 20th century Mesopotamia, during the months preceding World War I, during the final years of the Ottoman Empire.

I found The Ruby in Her Naval to be a much more satisfying book than Land of Marvels. For one thing, the former book is rich in atmosphere and follows
switterbug (Betsey)
Feb 27, 2011 rated it it was amazing
With lean, clean, clear, and well-lit prose, Barry Unsworth delivers a flawless and restrained masterwork in a sober but subtly ironic tone. From the opening passages until the end, I was enveloped in the naturalness and ease in which this historical novel unfolded.

On the precipice of World War I, a convergence of civilizations and a clash of egos surround an archaeological dig at Tell Erdek in Mesopotamia (Iraq). British archaeologist John Somerville seeks fame and something deeper as the head
Jayne Charles
Sep 09, 2012 rated it it was ok
In this novel of Mesopotamia in 1914, a stiff upper lipped Englishman is in charge of an archaeological dig, but those confounded chaps intent on organising a war wont let him get on with it and its a dashed nuisance. And if that werent enough theres an awful lot of bally nonsense over oil.

Enter the loquacious American oil man, like an early version of George Dubya, the sort of guy who in a film would have been played by Clint Eastwood or somesuch, and who has clearly been introduced to shake
Jan 04, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: reviewed
I chose to read this book because I once dreamed of becoming an archaeologist, and having lived in the region, I was especially interested in the early history of the search for oil. Let me start out by saying that the book is definitely a better read than the flap copy might lead you to believe. The narrative focus on this small group works extremely well, and serves to underscore the myriad of competing interests focused on the region at the time.

Unsworth is a skilled writer, and all of the
Apr 12, 2010 rated it did not like it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jan 16, 2009 rated it liked it
Slow and mellow with a big bang at the end. This illustrates how obsession and believing in one's lies can be a very dangerous to your health. Two men, one a scholar by choice, who is seeking self validation and is riddled with doubts, the other a man with no education but skills, self made, in love with a dream and obsessed with a woman. Both destinies tied together and for both to achieve their dreams both must succeed or die trying.

The setting is wonderfully done. Mesopotamia right before
Feb 06, 2009 rated it liked it
It is 1914, and Barry Unsworth's The Land of Marvels opens on a frustrated archeologist, John Somerville, digging in Mesopotamia. The narration then alternates between Somerville and those who make his acquaintance (a cast of con-men and murderers). Some bent on glory, others greed, but all wish to exploit the land of modern day Iraq. By the story's end everyone will have compromised themselves as oil mania consumes the region.

The plot is good, but the novel reads more as a political commentary
Erik van Berkum
Couldnt enjoy the book, difficult to get into the story and stay attached to the storyline. Happy I finished it. ...more
Apr 17, 2019 rated it it was ok
not terrible, but not very inspiring and a bit of a slog.
not recommended.
Jayant Maini
Aug 30, 2019 rated it it was ok
A good start.....but too many characters spoiled the experience for me.
Jul 22, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The book had a nice pace too it. Tension slowly building. A mixture of hope and impending doom - without knowing which would prevail.

Set in a time and place I do not know much about it made me consider the area in new ways. Think about new points of view. This is exactly why I like reading historical novels. So I enjoyed it for this reason.
Denise Rawling
Sep 16, 2018 rated it liked it
An engrossing look at the competing influences in the Middle East before WWI. Archaeology, the beginning of an interest in the vast untapped oil reserves which were to have such an impact on world politics in the decades to come, personal stories and the increasing menace of the coming world war are blended together in masterful historical fiction.
Kimberley Starr
Oct 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating story of pre WWI archaeologists, manages to be thoughtful about empire and a romp. Though I can't help noticing that the European characters seem fuller and more believable than the others, which is especially apparent when being in a Middle Eastern P.O.V, these episodes were rarely as convincing.
Jan 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A local librarian recommended this book to me and she nailed it. I loved the complexity of the story. Is it about a failed archeologist? Is it about the precursor of WWI? Is it about the importance of oil and its impact on the Middle East? It's all of those things thrown in with fictionalized (but well done) portrayals of flawed humans. And it's a mystery of sorts. Enjoyable.
Jim Sullivan
Mar 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
I rated this 4.0 on my rating

5.0 - Amazing
4.5 - I loved it
4.0 - I liked it a lot
3.5 - I Liked it
3.0 - It was OK
2.5 - Just
2.0 - I wouldn't bother
1.5 - I didn't like it much
1.0 - I disliked it
Sue Corbett
Nov 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
A few twists and turns, glad to see one villain gets his come-uppance, but sorry about other deaths and survivals. Somervilles fate is a nice touch after a comment in the mail.want to see if any of this is true. ...more
Feb 03, 2019 rated it liked it
A historical reminder of the purpose of government in today's world: establish more wealth through the exploitation of natural resources at the expense of other nations. Sad. Characters were drawn broadly and with little depth, but obviously not the point of this novel.
May 05, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I think it is evident this book was written near the end of his life.
May 13, 2009 rated it liked it
In 1914, on the eve of World War I, the British archeologist Somerville is in his third season of excavating a mound in Ottoman-controlled Mesopotamia. As he begins to uncover a palace and realizes its significance to the world's understanding of the fall of the Assyrian Empire, he is overwhelmed by the impending threat to his dig posed by the Germans' railway, which is planned to cut through the dig, and the European and American interest in the oil fields surrounding the dig. The convergence ...more
Dec 09, 2009 rated it it was amazing
How wonderful is it to read the latest book by an adored author and ---whew---you loved it!

Ahhh...a new Barry Unsworth novel. This is thrilling! Have you ever read anything by him, Flower? Unsworth is one of my top 10 favorite authors. I look forward to a new book by him with the same keen excitement that I await my siblings return to their own homes after holidays. He isn't a book a year writer so each new reading experience must be made to last. Also, he's 80 years old and hey I know older
Feb 09, 2009 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: historical fiction, archaeology, Assyria, Mesopotamia
Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth (This review is based on a bound galley.)
Land of Marvels is a two-sided statement. Taking place primarily at an archaeological dig, where hope reigns that there will be vast historic value to be discovered. There is also a separate, secondary love story running through the background with tales of the marvels that can be enjoyed in a wonderful city. The dig is a very real archaeological exploration; the stories are tales told to impress a loved one. Barry
Dillwynia Peter
Aug 05, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Neither a long nor intricate novel, it somehow manages to embody the the phoney war leading up the to First World War declaration. It has everything that was happening in the middle east at that time - the archeological finds that fired imaginations of past worlds, the excitement of a new age of energy with the advancement of oil & the vast reserves known in the Middle East, and the European machinations and proposed division of soils over a dying Ottoman Empire.

The period being unearthed is
Todd Stockslager
Jun 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
Unsworth spins an atmospheric tale of intrigue, politics, history, archeology, romance, and natural resources set in the disintegrating Ottoman Empire on the eve of the Great War. Unsworth handles the volatile mix with the due care and respect it deserves, using understatement and irony with a deft touch to highlight the touch points without exploding them on contact.

The story turns on the discovery of a major Assyrian site by British archaeologist Somerville. The site stands in the path of an
Jul 21, 2009 rated it really liked it
So, so unexpectedly lovely. I adore this sort of jewelbox of a book: small but not limited, both perfectly calibrated and emotionally generous -- this is the reason I became obsessed with the Booker Prize (and now I cannot. wait. to read Sacred Hunger). My mind thrills to finding symmetry in different people and times, and that is exactly what Land of Marvels does: ostensibly a story about white men (archaeologists, politicians, spies) and the things (tombs, oil, power) they hope to find in the ...more
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Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in a mining village in Durham, and he attended Stockton-on-Tees Grammar School and Manchester University, B.A., 1951.

From 1951-53, in the British Army, Royal Corps of Signals, he served and became second lieutenant.

A teacher and a novelist, Unsworth worked as a lecturer in English at Norwood Technical College, London, at University of Athens for the British

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