In her historical note at the end of Secret of the Sands, Sara Sheridan quotes Edith Wharton: "Slavish accuracy must necessarily reduce the novel to a piece of archaeological pedantry instead of a living image of the times." There's nothing dry and dusty about this book - except the Arabian desert in which it is set - instead, it's a rich and vibrant story whose strong factual basis has been imaginatively and very successfully interpreted so that as a piece of escapist historical fiction it's an excellent read.
If you've loved Katie Hickman's The Aviary Gate (there's a post on it here) then I think you'd enjoy Secret of the Sands equally. Set in 1833, it follows a real figure, Lieutenant James Wellsted, whose posting with the British Navy to survey the coastline of the Arabian peninsula is, he hopes, a route to fame and fortune. As he submits an account of his travels to publisher John Murray in London, so events divert him from his planned course and he is sent into the interior on a mission to rescue two brother officers.
While back in Britain slavery has been abolished, here in Oman it is big business, and by a strange twist of fate Wellsted finds himself the protector of Zena, an Abyssinian slave girl, and the travelling companion of the two ruthless men who captured her. What follows will be a test of loyalty, allegiance and ingenuity, an adventure and romance played out in the harshest conditions.
I was drawn in by the book's easy, unselfconscious style which incorporates a mass of historical detail, the sensuous descriptive passages which vividly evoke its exotic setting, and its intriguing characters (Farida, the Irish wife of Ali Ibn Mudar, the Navy's agent in Muscat, is a particular star!). The plot has been very carefully constructed and nothing in terms of fact, motivation or situation has been overlooked, so it's a pleasingly complete piece and a thoroughly enjoyable book.
When you're reading a writer for the first time the acid test of their work is whether you're then inclined to read more by them, so would I read another Sara Sheridan? Without doubt.