Will Collins at the Los Angeles Review of Books:
Why is Blanch’s influence on Dune worth recognizing? Celebrating Blanch is not a means to discredit Herbert, whose imaginative novel transcends the sum of its influences. But Dune remains massively popular while The Sabres of Paradiselanguishes in relative obscurity, and renewed public interest in Blanch’s forgotten history would be a welcome development.
Great travel writing makes no pretense of objectivity, and The Sabres of Paradiseowes more to Blanch’s background as a travel writer than any traditional history. Blanch traveled and wrote extensively about the Middle East and Russia, and she doesn’t bother hiding her affection for her subject matter. She was clearly captivated by the culture and peoples of the Caucasus, and it’s difficult not to be swept away by her enthusiasm.
The history she produced is a minor masterpiece, an unabashedly romantic account of a conflict that continues to inform religious and political tensions in the Caucasus to this day. (It’s no accident that Chechnya was the geographic core of Imam Shamyl’s movement, or that the Murids’ austerely militant Islamic faith recalls the theology of modern fundamentalists.) Blanch was not a professional historian, and one suspects that an academic would have produced an altogether less satisfying account of this period. The climax of The Sabres of Paradise, a tension-fraught exchange of hostages between the Russian army and the insurgents, would probably be relegated to a few dry paragraphs in an academic tome. For Blanch, it occupies an entire chapter — a magnificent account of the trade of three Georgian princesses, kidnapped in a daring Muslim raid, for Shamyl’s firstborn son, captured as a boy and raised to manhood in the court of the The Great White Czar.