What in the hands of a lesser writer could have been a collection of obscure facts, figures, and personalities is here transformed--thanks to vibrant writing and remarkable organization--into a riveting drama of 19th-century imperialistic power-politics. Tracing the British and Russian rivalry for control of the deserts and mountain ranges that stretch from the Black Sea to the China Sea, Hopkirk, fomer Asian affairs specialist for the London Times, packs his narrative with enough death, double-dealing, and derring-do to keep a TV miniseries surging along for months. The author picks up the story at the dawn of the 1800's, after having briefly sketched in such background details as Peter the Great's purported deathbed instructions to expand the tsarist empire, and Napoleon's Egyptian campaign--both of which the English saw as threats to their hegemony in the Indian subcontinent. For more than a century, Russia and England each scored triumphs and suffered setbacks, much to the despair or delight of the rival nation. Here, the action takes place in a cloak-and-dagger atmosphere of disguised pseudotravelers gathering information about barbarous (and largely unexplored) hinterlands. Hopkirk's accounts of incursions into such exotic locales as Samarkand, Bokhara, and Lhasa are among the most exciting in his fast-paced work, with many of the adventurers he describes meeting their Maker in singularly unpleasant ways--through beheading, dismemberment, garrotting. Hopkirk maintains the suspense with assurance, and also is evenhanded in his treatment of the duplicity that marks the activities not only of the area's Muslim natives but of the Russians and English as well. Working on a sprawling canvas crammed with incidents set in council chambers and Himalayan mountain passes, and with a cast that includes Queen Victoria, tsars, trigger-happy militarists, fanatical khans, sepoys, and Sherpas, Hopkirk organizes his material with a master's touch. The result is historical writing of extraordinary power and readability.